The Ethicist: Can a Professor Pay for a Student’s Counseling?

June 24, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Can a Professor Pay for a Student’s Counseling?”.

I’m a professor at a state university. A few years ago, I had a situation with a student that still troubles me. I asked the young woman to see me in my office to discuss her absences from class and her poor performance. She was subdued during the session and said she would do better. But as she was leaving, she turned and said, “Professor, could I close the door and tell you something?”

She then proceeded to recount a terrifying experience. In a nutshell, during a summer job, she had been the victim of a sexual assault. She felt she couldn’t tell her parents, but she was having terrible guilt and anxiety problems that were affecting her schoolwork.

Of course, the first thing I said was, “Have you sought help?” She had gone to the university’s services, but she said that it had been a waste of time. So I asked her if she would be open to counseling at the well-regarded counseling center in town. She said she would. I called them on the spot and set it up. There was a charge of a few hundred dollars, and she didn’t have the money. I paid for it. I never followed up with her, but she did well in my class, a large lecture class.

Fast-forward to graduation, where I could see she was doing much better. I felt great at the time but have since wondered whether I became too involved.

My response: We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

This column’s headline asks a question, but it comes from the headline writer, not the letter writer. I’ve already noted the insidious, nefarious skills of this column’s headline writers. They consistently pack the headline with the intellectual and mental equivalent of junk food—“should I . . .” “Is it okay to . . .” “Is it right/wrong to . . .” I don’t know what to call it. It’s not click-bait. It’s addictive mental junk food.

The New York Times response:

At many universities, faculty members must report any disclosure of sexual assault or harassment to a specified office of the university, whether or not the incident took place on campus. (The policy is based on a widespread, if contested, interpretation of federal law.) That’s why universities sometimes said faculty members were “mandatory reporters,” though the term favored now is “responsible employees.” The officials who receive these reports will usually respect the student’s decision as to whether to make a formal complaint, but there are instances when the university will determine that it must take steps on its own to ensure public safety. Universities cannot guarantee confidentiality because they can be subpoenaed.

The cost of rules like these is that they make it less likely that people will talk to their professors in the way this student talked to you. In your case, things turned out very well. The rules have benefits as well, one of which is that the student is connected with people who are experts in dealing with such situations and can be given a sense of all their options. True, your student judged the university’s services to be useless, but as the larger problem of sexual misconduct has gained prominence in the past few years, universities have taken measures to improve their responses.

Still, some readers may wonder (as I once would have myself) why you’re second-guessing a good deed that had a good outcome. In truth, there were risks. If anything had gone wrong, you might have been held responsible. An official system, if it’s properly set up, is better placed than an individual faculty member to provide professional advice. And if you had reported the information, you could have taken advice from the experts about what else you should do. (You could also have told them that the university’s existing system had failed her.)

In circumstances like these, it’s natural to want to help. But a student is not a friend or acquaintance: He or she is someone with whom you have a professional relationship. Teaching and learning wouldn’t work very well if we could never become friendly with our students. But setting limits on these relationships protects both them and you from unprofessional entanglements. As sad as it is to lose stories like yours, I’ve come to think that there really is a case for handing over a student who is having such difficulties to people who are trained in dealing with them. So I fear that your later doubts are well founded. Paying for her counseling, though it was a generous and humane gesture, could have involved you in a way that crossed a boundary.

I am a middle-aged woman with three brothers. Our mother, who came from another country, died many years ago. Shortly before she died, I learned that she had a daughter before she met and married our father. This daughter was raised by my mother’s sister back in her home country, and we all grew up believing she was our cousin.

I was not supposed to find out that this cousin was actually my mother’s daughter, but I did because one day my mom let something slip. I approached her about it, and it was clearly an extremely painful thing for her to talk about. She confirmed only that this cousin was my half sister and that my father knew about it. It blew me away. I was overwhelmed and excited — thrilled, actually, at the idea of having a sister. I had a million questions. But it was clearly not something I could talk about lightly, seeing how hard it was for my mother.

After that, my mother became very ill and died within a year. Needless to say, those events took precedence over all other family matters at the time. While going through her belongings after her death, I found her daughter’s birth certificate and a few letters they wrote to each other. I also found out that this “cousin” had a brother, who was also my mother’s son.

Here is my ethical question: After my mother died, should I have discussed what I found out with my father? He passed away a few years ago. I never mentioned it to him, mainly because my father was not an easy person to talk to. I did not know what his feelings on the subject were; it was not hard for me to imagine that he did not want to bring my mother’s other children to America with us. And I was not sure it was my place to bring the matter up. I could only guess at what my mom’s wishes would have been, and all I knew for certain was that the only conversation I ever had with her was painful for her.

After my father died, I did a lot of reaching out to my mom’s family overseas. I learned more, and today I even have a relationship with my half sister. The fear I had that my father had somehow rejected my mother’s other children was completely unfounded. In fact, the opposite was true. My father wanted to bring the two children with us to America, but my mother’s family, who were raising the children while my mom worked in another town, objected. So it is conceivable that talking to my father about it could have been beneficial and rewarding to him, if only I had given him an opening. Was I wrong to hide my knowledge from him?

My response: You ask what you should have done and if it was wrong.

Since it’s done and your mother and father have passed, besides the problem you describe, the current issue seems that you feel ambivalent/confused/guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. Since you can’t change the past, the issue seems to be living with what happened. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

Regarding if you were wrong, since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your current situation and similar future situations as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

I would have categorized this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Labeling something then or now doesn’t change your situation. Abstract questions of philosophy would not have resolved this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.

The New York Times response:

Should you have brought all this up with your father? Clearly, given what you now know, you can see that it might well have been good for your relationship. But the history of the interactions you had with your father and your view of him at the time made talking to him look difficult and, potentially, disruptive of your relationship. You now think it could have gone well. But it might have gone very badly. Your worries weren’t unreasonable.

We make decisions in time, based on the knowledge we have. We can, like our professor in the previous question, still second-guess a decision that turned out well, and it’s hard not to second-guess a decision that didn’t. (Our assessment of an act can be colored by consequences beyond the actor’s control — what philosophers call “moral luck.”) And yet the wisdom of a decision isn’t simply undermined by the discovery that you could have made a better one if you had known something that you didn’t, in fact, know at the time. The story of your life doesn’t come with an omniscient narrator. So don’t beat yourself up.

I’ll venture, however, that a big motivation for keeping family secrets — a fear that their revelation will damage relationships — is often mistaken. Truth and truthfulness, especially about important questions, matter in our relationships with people we love.

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