Editorial: Grad student booted for unfounded reasons

Esteban Diaz | Editorial Cartoonist

A graduate student says he was dropped from the family counseling program at Webster University after the school determined he was lacking empathy.

David Schwartz, 44, earned all A’s and one C during his master’s program at the University but was dismissed on March 14 after failing to complete the real-world practicum.

Schwartz filed a suit shortly after, claiming up to $1 million in losses and seeking at least $2 million in punitive damages. Schwartz further alleges in his suit he was deemed a poor performer after writing an anonymous letter to the dean, in which he criticized a professor. Schwartz’s letter also described a romantic relationship between that professor and an administrator.

Webster University states in its Academic Probation, Warning, and Dismissal code, “students may be required to meet with the campus Counseling Advisory Committee if they are not able to demonstrate academic success, appropriate interpersonal and/or counseling skills development, and/or if they are perceived as resistant to professional clinical supervision.” Schwartz, however, says he was not given the opportunity to do so. Additionally, the school’s code says, “This Committee will review the reasons for student lack of success and will interview relevant instructors and the student to determine the most appropriate path for student success related to a potential future in the counseling profession.”

The Saint Louis Post Dispatch reported that Schwartz stated he felt he was in good standing until Feb. 24. That day, Dr. Stacy Henning, the university’s director of counseling education, told him he needed to improve his empathy.

A week later, Henning met with Schwartz again and referenced three taped counseling sessions that showed he was lacking empathy, the lawsuit said.

Maybe the counseling school felt the best path for Schwartz was to leave the profession altogether. It sounds like the board didn’t do too much reviewing.

The question is, did Schwartz really get dropped because he lacked empathy toward students, or because he lacked empathy toward a teacher and administrator in an inappropriate relationship? Students are now left wondering if the same could happen if their school administrators decide they don’t care for a student’s personality.

If so, according to a study conducted between 1979 and 2009, many college students would find themselves out of school. Themoneytimes.com reports that researchers who studied roughly 14,000 college student’s personalities found that young adults, unable to elicit feelings of concern for others, are definitely less empathetic than they used to be.

What was Schwartz’s lack of empathy compared to? Although Schwartz is older than most college students, he was judged on the same level academically. If empathy was truly a way to judge program readiness, the board should have accounted for the lower empathy most college students possess today and judge Schwartz on the same level in this instance too. Empathy, however, is a subjective quality – too subjective a quality to be used to judge a candidate’s readiness for a career.

Perhaps Webster’s advisement board should retake the real-world practicum themselves. It isn’t clear if they would pass the empathy portion either.