Insensitive remarks, lies and a ‘toxic’ office: Ex-staff detail why they quit SVSU’s student counseling center

Former staff members Sara Lyden, mental health counselor (left) and Margaret Bach, director of the counseling center (right). Courtesy Photos | Ucomm

SVSU’s Mental Health and Wellness Center has gone through a major shakeup over the past several months after allegations of a “toxic” work environment and other serious accusations.

In an office responsible for providing mental health counseling services to students, staff members resigned because they said their own mental health deteriorated because of tensions with colleagues and complaints of discrimination.

None of the professional staff members who worked in SVSU’s Mental Health and Wellness Center at the beginning of 2021 remained employed there by the end of the year.

The latest employee to exit the office was its director, Margaret Bach. She was hired in February 2021 to oversee the office’s rebranding and then resigned in October 2021 after she said “lies, falsehoods and ongoing misrepresentations” were directed at her by “many staff at the university.”

“I recently resigned from the university, due to the fact that the lies, falsehoods and ongoing misrepresentations would continue to be perpetuated by many staff of the university,” Bach wrote in an email in response to questions from The Vanguard. “As someone hired to support the mental health and wellness of the university, unfortunately, my emotional health was suffering and needed to be a priority.”

However, ex-employees tell a much different story about what took place at the center under Bach’s leadership.

Among the people accusing Bach of creating a “toxic” work environment as well as using racial- and gender-insensitive language in front of colleagues was Sara Lyden, a former mental health counselor who said she quit along with two of her office co-workers in the summer. Bach was their supervisor.

Lyden said other factors pre-dating Bach’s arrival also played a role in Lyden’s decision
to leave. She said the office lacked support from university leaders during a fall 2020 semester that presented a dramatic increase in demand for mental health support services.

“The mental health of our students remains a high priority,” SVSU spokesman J.J. Boehm said in a statement to The Vanguard. “We appreciate the ongoing efforts of the current staff of the Mental Health and Wellness Center to provide timely, professional service to our students, and we support them in this important work.”

In October 2021, The Valley Vanguard began investigating the staff turnover in the Mental Health and Wellness Center. Along with interviewing former professionals in the office, The Vanguard reviewed notes staff created to document the work environment. The Vanguard also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with SVSU to review a Discrimination Complaint Form submitted against Bach in July 2021.

Mental health crises

The SVSU Student Counseling Center (now called the Mental Health and Wellness Center) was already facing a lack of resources, prior to the beginning of the pandemic, Lyden said.

Lyden, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s from SVSU, joined the office as an intern in
2018 and then was hired as a professional mental health counselor in 2019.

Lyden, whose maiden name was Sara Woodrow at her time of employment, said their office had been short-staffed since she was hired. She said it is recommended for counseling centers in higher education to employ one full-time therapist per 1,000 to 1,500 students, according to the International Accreditation of Counseling Services. In the fall 2020 semester, SVSU employed two full-time counselors and a student population of around 7,000, she said.

Lyden said the fall 2020 semester’s staff level became especially challenging following the return to campus after lockdown in August 2020 and then the November 2020 on-campus suicide of Dennis Gray, a biology professor at the time. Both circumstances elevated student anxieties and exposed exactly how much the center was struggling to meet the demands of the student population, she said.

She said the office advocated for more staffing, but the university never followed through on those requests or provided support that semester. Lyden said the center’s staff also requested a phone service that would provide students with a 24/7 hotline for mental health crises in 2020, but the university did not provide that resource until the following year.

“I don’t think the university really understood what it was that we did,” Lyden said. “Even now, I’m not sure that they really understand the services and how those services have to function and the ethics behind them and the policies. We never really had much support in general from the university. We called ourselves an island. We felt very separate from everything and everyone.”

According to Lyden that separation sometimes led to a breakdown in communications.

For example, following Gray’s on-campus suicide in November 2020, Lyden said she and the counseling staff learned of the additional services they would provide when they read about those planned services in campus-wide communications sent to all students, staff and faculty.

Lyden said she and her colleagues learned about the office’s renaming as the Mental Health and Wellness Center from a communication sent across the campus, creating confusion for some in the office.

“We thought SVSU was creating a new center and we were going to be part of that center,” Lyden said of her first reaction to reading the communication. “We didn’t realize we were the center.”

Change and uncertainty

At the time of Gray’s suicide, the office was in a state of transition. The director at the time recently had accepted a new position in the campus’ Human Resources department and was preparing for the move.

In the weeks after Gray’s suicide, the university brought in Bach, who was CEO of Child and Family Services of Saginaw at the time, to evaluate SVSU’s student counseling operations, Lyden said.

In her email to The Vanguard, Bach said the circumstances of her role in that evaluation.

“In the fall of 2020, the SVSU Counseling Center was under tremendous scrutiny and criticism,” Bach said. “This condemnation … caused the administration to create substantial changes to the department, including moving the Counseling Center from Academic Affairs to the office of Administration and Business Affairs. The staff were feeling hurt and devalued prior to my arrival.”

Lyden said university leaders were never clear to the staff at the time about the reason for the evaluation. She said that it felt a lot like an “audit” because Bach was looking at statistics of how many students were being seen, how
quickly staff in the office were responding to students, and what their caseloads looked like.

Once the evaluation was completed, the position for a new director was posted and Bach was hired.

Lyden said that it was around this time as well that university officials began to talk about rebranding the office to be named Mental Health and Wellness Center, a move she said was mostly “for optics” and added little substantive change to the office. As part of the rebranding, the office space was renovated, moving services temporarily to the third floor.

“I felt it was missing the point of what the students were worried about,” Lyden said. “It wasn’t necessarily the name or
the space: it was the accessibility, the availability, the quality of services, what we were able to provide. That’s what the
students wanted to see.”

Lyden also said she was worried the rebranding would make the center less transparent.

“Even though we were called Student Counseling Center, a lot of people just assumed that it’s the mental health center and that we treat the mental health for everybody,” she said. “But we’re only able to see students within that office. So, when they presented that they were going to rebrand us as the Mental Health and Wellness Center, it made our services even more ambiguous, even less transparent. What we needed was more transparency.”

Bach, though, said her work in the office after her hiring was impactful. “I was hired to bring change to the Mental Health and Wellness Center,” Bach said. “I did this by partnering with fellow universities to understand best practices for university and counseling center standards. In less than a few months, a 24/7 crisis line for students was initiated, the electronic medical records system was brought in compliance, clinical staff were serving more students than previously required, a strategic plan, policies, procedures where established. All essential for quality operations befitting of a university counseling office.”

Boehm said Bach’s contributions to the center were beneficial.

“Margie Bach resigned from her position as director of SVSU’s Mental Health & Wellness Center, effective Friday, Oct. 29,” Boehm said. “We appreciate her efforts to provide timely, quality mental health services to our students, and to add new programs, such as a 24/7 crisis support line. We wish her well as she pursues other professional opportunities.”

‘A delicate position’

Lyden said she and her colleagues in the office felt apprehension about the university’s decision to hire Bach.

Lyden said she felt there were conflicts of interest in the hiring. For example, the SVSU counseling center contracted with Child and Family Services of Saginaw when Bach was CEO there, sometimes sending SVSU students to Bach’s organization for counseling services when necessary. With Bach leading an evaluation of the SVSU counseling center, it put her in a position to recommend more outsourcing to Child and Family Services of Saginaw, Lyden said. It also put Bach in a position to set herself up to be hired at SVSU, Lyden said.

“It felt very premeditated,” Lyden said of the hiring.

Prior to Bach coming in, the environment at the SVSU counseling center was tight-knit and staff there were supportive of one another, Lyden said. She said that, once Bach came in, that structure dramatically changed, and it became difficult to work in the office.

Lyden said that one of the reasons for this was because Bach used racial- and gender-insensitive language.

Bach denied the allegations.

“The allegations and accusations made by a former staff member are false, sad misrepresentation and a frankly defamation of my character,” Bach said. “It is also important to note that this staff members never shared any of these concerns directly with me or with any other staff at the university. As misunderstandings can easily and appropriately be handled very constructively with simple, honest, open dialogue.”

Lyden stood by her allegations. She said she was present when Bach made one of the racial- and gender-insensitive remarks.

After Bach was hired, she was a member of a university committee that performed a job search for a new part-time mental health counselor at the office, Lyden said. The counselor hired was a Black man.

“She said she wasn’t sure if we could keep him busy,” Lyden said. “When we asked what she meant, she followed up with, ‘Not
a lot of men and not a lot of Black people typically reach out for services.’ That’s when we corrected her, that he’s qualified to see anybody.”

Lyden said her office colleagues described other remarks Bach voiced regarding that same part-time counselor. Lyden kept notes of those discussions, sharing them with The Vanguard. Those incidents she learned from colleagues included the following:
• After the part-time counselor was hired, Lyden said Bach told a colleague in the office, “I don’t know why they even have a committee if they were just going to pick a Black man to fill a spot anyway.”
• Lyden said Bach told a colleague in the office that they would have to “lighten up” a photo of the part-time counselor before it was included in a printed presentation packet for prospective students.
• Lyden said Bach told a colleague that she mistook one Black person for another because “they all look alike.”

Lyden said that the comments Bach made didn’t sit right with her.

“We were in a very delicate position because we didn’t feel the university trusted us,” she said. “And we didn’t really trust the university. We didn’t want to make reports so early on, because they already felt we were being very defensive.”

One of Lyden’s colleagues in July submitted the Discrimination Complaint Form against Bach, Lyden said. Except for the date of the filing, the university redacted all submitted content in the form when The Vanguard requested it using the Freedom
of Information Act. When justifying the redactions, the university cited “privacy” and indicated there was “not a final determination” related to the complaint.

“SVSU received one complaint regarding Margie Bach during her time at the university,” Boehm said. “SVSU immediately began an inquiry into the complaint. The inquiry has been completed. Since Ms. Bach and the complainant have each left the university, no further action is needed at this time.”

Broken dreams

Lyden said that the way Bach acted in the center created a “hostile” workspace. Lyden said the environment became “unbearable,” leading Bach’s only three professional staff members to leave their jobs by summer.

“I was uncomfortable being in office space with her,” Lyden said. “I started having a really hard time functioning and making it to work because I was so depressed, and I was so anxious.”

Lyden said that leaving was not an easy decision, and she felt as though she was letting the students down.

“I had every intention of making this a career,” she said.

“I took a pay cut to come to the university because I loved it. And I’ve never left a job that I loved. I loved the students. I loved the work. I loved being a therapist. I loved everything about my job. But the work environment was so unbearable that my own mental health had declined to a point that I couldn’t justify staying because it wasn’t fair to my students. I’m coming into work and I’m having panic attacks between my appointments, and that’s not fair to them. But there was no one to help us.”

Lyden resigned after the other full-time mental health counselor at the time left the office. After Lyden’s departure, the office’s administrative secretary left, Lyden said. All were gone within a 1-month period, she said, leaving Bach as the only full-time professional.

“My mental health had declined and then I was going to be losing my support system,” Lyden said of her decision to leave. “It
wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse.”

Lyden said that the university is just as at fault for the issues.

“The university was complicit in hiring her against our reservations about it and against our encouragement to focus on other aspects of resolving these issues,” Lyden said.

“I want them to do better with that. And to make an honest effort and making things better because nothing’s changed. Except for the name. That’s so scary. And the students don’t deserve that. Everyone, you know, has been asking for support and asking for help and I think the focus has just gone so far off course that I don’t even know that they’re aware of what they’re working towards anymore.”

Lyden said she hopes that something positive will transpire out of the “toxic” workplace environment she experienced, and that university leaders will hold themselves accountable.

“I still feel like I can’t let that go until I know that something is actively going to be done,” she said. “To improve it. And I’m not there anymore to see that that’s getting done. And so, I think more than anything, it’s just a sense of responsibility. I have to do everything I feel like I can that this gets brought forward so that the university feels, ‘I have to do something to repair this to make this better.’”

The Mental Health and Wellness Center is currently under the direction of Interim Director Kelly Thompson. There is a job posting for director of Campus Mental Health and Wellness Center to fill Bach’s position.

The Center held a grand opening for its newly renovated office on Nov. 2, 2021.

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