Student Life Counseling Closes Doors

BY KELLY BROWN

Student Services

The renovation of Harkness Commons and the continued provision of morning coffee have been cause for smiles and celebration on the Harvard Law campus this fall, but there is some debate over whether other changes in the school have been so positive. This past July, the Office of Student Life Counseling at HLS shut its doors permanently, relegating its responsibilities to other offices around campus.

“I think that the closure of Student Life Counseling is leaving a gap, and what is planned [to replace it] isn’t sufficient to fill that gap,” said Jennifer Chong, a 3L who says some of her friends used the services of SLC. “HLS is outstanding in so many ways, so why not allow it to be outstanding in the way it takes care of its students?”

Student Life Counseling was founded in the 1970s to provide students at the law school with specifically career-related counseling, said Dean of Students Ellen Cosgrove, whose office oversaw SLC. The charge of SLC gradually evolved to include counseling law students on general life issues and personal difficulties.

After arriving at Harvard in February, Cosgrove assisted Dean Elena Kagan in an evaluation of current counseling services and administrative structures within the Dean of Students area. Cosgrove ultimately decided to dissolve Student Life Counseling, citing “evolving needs,” and worked to alter the organization and operation of other offices to accommodate the change. The Dean of Students Office has added new personnel, and has taken over SLC’s former offices in Pound 309. Cosgrove notified returning students of the decision to close SLC in an e-mail dated August 31.

“While [the work of SLC] was very important, it was being replicated,” Cosgrove said. “I’m really confident that this new structure is going to serve us better.”

Cosgrove stressed that the mental health counseling undertaken by SLC in recent times was not part of its original mandate, that only 14 law students utilized the therapeutic counseling services on a regular, weekly basis, and that Harvard University Health Services offers a range of counseling options for those students who did make frequent use of SLC.

The intensive personal counseling component of SLC will now be managed wholly by HUHS. The recent disbanding and absorption of several other school-specific counseling offices at Harvard reflects administrative concern about adequate oversight of mental health services and a move toward consolidation and centralization of these services students under the umbrella of HUHS.

Some, however, feel that the counselors at HUHS lack the requisite knowledge and understanding of the law school experience and its unique stresses. Director of SLC Mark Byers, Ph.D., had been with the office since its inception.

“[Byers] was very well versed in the particular issues that HLS students are likely to have,” Chong said. “He was aware of the pressures and problems that are endemic, or at least specific, to attending Harvard Law. You can’t recreate his experience.”

Cosgrove said that she wants students to rely on the Dean of Students Office for support in times of difficulty, and that students can go to her office with any concerns they might have, including personal crises, questions about campus life, or problems with another office at the school.

“We want to be the first place students go,” Cosgrove said. “We’re not holding ourselves out as therapists, but we’re good at triaging.”

The Office of Career Services and the Office of Public Interest Advising have absorbed some of the SLC’s other former duties, which include oversight of the “World of Law” programming series and general career counseling. Both offices have assumed some additional responsibilities in the wake of the SLC shutdown, although no additional personnel have been hired.

Alexa Shabecoff, Assistant Dean of OPIA, said that the transition had been underway since last spring, and had placed some additional responsibilities on her staff members, causing minor “growing pains.”

“We’re still trying to deal with the transition,” Shabecoff said. “We were already doing the career counseling piece, but now we’re working more with OCS.”

Shabecoff said that she had corresponded with several students who expressed disappointment over the closure of SLC, but also said that she did not believe the recent increase in demand for OPIA services was related. Neither OPIA nor OCS offer counseling for personal issues.

Echoing Cosgrove, Shabecoff said that OPIA’s doors are open to all students, and that if a student should need to seek therapy, her office will assist.

“We’re lawyers on this staff,” she said. “We’re not psychologists or psychiatrists. So if think [a student’s needs] are acute, I try to recognize it and make a referral.”

The law students who saw SLC counselors last year on a weekly basis were notified personally of the dissolution of the office, and HUHS made arrangements for transfer of their care, said Cosgrove. The 200 students who last year were sporadic or one-time visitors to the Student Life Counseling Office, as well as other students with long- or short-term personal counseling needs, will need to seek assistance through the Dean of Students Office at HLS, or through HUHS.

“It’s incredibly distressing,” Chong said. “Even people I knew who hadn’t gone [to SLC] just felt better knowing it was there.”

But other students disagreed.

“I don’t see why this is a major concern if only a few people used the service on a regular basis,” said Michael Negron, a 1L who added that he had not previously given any thought to what counseling services might be available at the law school. “It seems like there are probably more pressing issues.”

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