Florida College Counselors Terminated, Students Left in Limbo

lonely studentWith no warning to students or faculty, this spring Broward College terminated the jobs of 14 faculty counselors, aiming to replace 250 years of collective experience with lower-paid, less-experienced, non-unionized “advisors,” and leaving tens of thousands of students in limbo as they look for guidance around a return to campus this fall.

The counselors estimate about $300,000 will be saved through their termination—less than the annual salary of the college president, or about one-tenth of 1 percent of the college’s 2016 operating budget.

With that in mind, counselors believe the real goal of their terminations is to weaken the voice of experienced faculty on campus and reduce their union’s power. Since the terminations however, the United Faculty of Florida-Broward College chapter has collected nearly 4,000 signatures on a petition asking for the immediate reinstatement of the counselors and announced plans last week to file a charge of unfair labor practice (ULP) with the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission.

“The true cost is not financial. The true cost is the reduction of quality of service to the 67,000 Broward College students who rely on the expertise of faculty counselors,” said Robert Bullard, a counselor who is in his 29th year at the college. “To me, I think you want to make every decision at Broward College on what’s best for students. In this case we don’t think that’s what happened.”

To support the counselors, join UFF-Broward in signing the petition.

Meet the Broward Counselors

Counselor Denise Rodriguez, who has worked for the college since 1993 and has two master’s degrees, a Ph.D., and is a state-certified mental-health counselor, was meeting with an anxious student at 3:15 pm, Wednesday, April 15, when she was called into an unscheduled meeting with administrators and the college’s counseling staff. She told the student she would call her back when the meeting ended.

She didn’t. She couldn’t. “We were informed we were no longer employees, and our access to students was immediately terminated,” Rodriguez said.

Broward College faculty counselors, who were abruptly let go this spring, are worried about how their students are accessing mental-health services and other counseling, they recently told reporters. (L-R): Dr. Yinka Tella, Dr. Denise Rodriguez, Robert Bullard.

But, for the past two months, students nonetheless have continued to reach out to their counselors, asking for guidance on transferring to Florida’s state universities or returning to campus this fall. Colleagues from other Broward College departments also continue to call. With their many decades of experience on campus, ranging from 14 to 29 years per faculty counselor, the counselors have been a priceless resource.

The new advisors will need many years to understand Broward County’s “many complicated systems, policies and nuances,” said Bullard. In the meantime, students will suffer the lack of their support.

Thousands have lost contact with the counselors who are familiar with their needs and issues, and have the expertise to assist them, said Yinka Tella, a counselor who has worked at the college since 2004 and holds a doctoral degree in higher education.

“When the college says ‘BC Cares,’ each of us has been the face of the college for our students for 15 to 30 years. Individually, we have assisted students as they work through issues of academic efficacy, identity confusion, resource constraints and emotional turmoil,” said Tella. Recently, as the campus physically shut its doors this spring, they helped students “to make sense of the chaos around them.”

And not only are they experienced, but the counselors are racially diverse — 11 of the 14 are people of color, points out UFF-Broward College President Teresa Hodge. “At this moment in history, our institutions need more inclusivity, not less,” she said.

Next Steps for Supporters

Florida State Representative Joe Geller, who represents much of south Broward County, agrees with the counselors. “This is not what the students need. It’s not what the college needs,” said Geller. If budget cuts have to be made, he suggested, “the cuts made shouldn’t go so directly to the core mission of the institution, which is the students. They shouldn’t be suffering, like we’ve seen today.”

“Students require counseling. Simply saying that we’re going to have it done by people with less background, less training, and who can do it cheaper — and coincidentally happen not to be union members — is not the answer,” said Geller, who urged college administrators to meet with union leaders.

Broward College student Rivkah Moshe.

The “reduction in force” already has been approved by the college’s short-handed Board of Trustees (BOT), which has just three members currently. (Two voted to terminate the counselors.) But many supporters, including students, plan to return to the BOT to ask them to rehire the counselors immediately.

They include Rivkah Moshe, a Broward College student who graduated on June 6 and will be transferring to Boston University to complete a bachelor’s degree in physics. Her success as a student, she says, is due in part to Broward’s Women in STEM project, which was designed and coordinated by Counselor Denise Rodriguez.

“The Women in STEM project is the community that has impacted me the most. I mentored mentees, as well as trained new mentors, and worked closely with the faculty creator, Dr. Rodriguez,” said Moshe. Even during the pandemic, the program has flourished because of Rodriguez, she said. “In a fragile time, Dr. Rodriguez kept us strong. With her experience as a faculty counselor, like any faculty counselor, she is equipped with both emotional intelligence and institutional knowledge of Broward College.”

Since Rodriguez’ termination, the project has stopped. “I was asked by the other mentees what had happened, and what could we do,” said Moshe, who sobbed through a recent press conference about the terminations.

“We’re helpless. And left to our own devices… More than ever, we need our faculty counselors and we need our Women in STEM program. We need Dr. Rodriguez. We need Dr. Denise Rodriguez back in her office, as soon as possible.”