Webster U Throws Out a Student for “Lacking Empathy”

Am I doomed to encountering weird education-related news today?

Webster University (which is located in my area and is quite respected by my colleagues who are from around here) has terminated an MA student for lacking empathy:

A former Webster University student who was studying to be a family counselor says in a lawsuit that he was dismissed from a master’s degree program after it was determined that he lacked empathy. . .
The student, David Schwartz, 44, of University City, had received all A’s and only one C in his course work, according to a school transcript. But he was dismissed from the program on March 14 after he received a “no credit” for failing to successfully complete the practicum, in which he was to apply his class work to a real-world counseling setting. Schwartz alleges in his lawsuit that he was deemed a poor performer after he wrote an anonymous letter to the dean criticizing a professor’s teaching methods and noting the romantic relationship between that professor and an administrator.

Of course, if you object to a professor sleeping with an administrator you must definitely lack empathy. Criticizing somebody’s teaching is also very cruel. Aren’t you supposed to be understanding and tolerant of everybody, no matter how bad they are at what they do?

Jokes aside, it would be great to know how WebsterU measures a student’s empathy level. It is also of interest to me why empathy is so crucial to a family counselor. If I were to visit one, the last thing I’d be looking for would be pity and impotent sighing over my problems. I always thought that a counselor should at least strive to remain emotionally uninvolved in order to avoid any kind of bias. In my view, a valuable counselor isn’t the one who’s sitting there shedding tears over a client’s problems. Just the opposite, a good counselor is somebody who can assess a situation with some degree of objectivity and offer useful mechanisms of dealing with a problem.

For empathy, I go to my friends. It’s their job to be always on my side and tell me how I’m right about everything. A counselor, however, should be able to offer objective insights irrespective of how much the client moans, weeps, and blames everybody else for everything.

15 thoughts on “Webster U Throws Out a Student for “Lacking Empathy”

  1. Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy. Empathy is about understanding the feelings – not necessarily sharing those feelings.

    But I agree – measuring empathy is difficult at best – and this smells like a political dismissal, not one based on substantive grounds.


    1. I always thought that the following definition of empathy was the most widely used: “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

      I think that identifying with and vicariously experiencing a client’s feelings is a really bad idea for a counselor.


  2. People generally prefer to discuss problems with those who can understand their feelings. There’s a reason people don’t go to their accountants for personal problems.

    Old joke – How can you tell who’s an accountant at a party?
    He’s looking at his shoes.

    How can you tell an accountant is interested in you?
    He’s looking at your shoes.


  3. Mmmm. Well, the article certainly leaves questions as to whether the university handled the matter correctly.
    However, I do think empathy should be a prerequisite for the qualification in question. It’s not about pity or identifying with the client or vicariously feeling their emotions – the best impartial advice in the world will be ineffective if the counsellor cannot approach the problem in a manner that the client can understand and accept, and in order to do that, the counsellor needs to be able to understand the client’s perspective even if they do not agree with it.

    I do wonder to what extent the university can teach empathy, and how exactly one goes about grading it. I’m also somewhat doubtful to what extent that the requirement to provide support should extend – for instance, support in terms of teaching exam techniques seems reasonable, but should the student fail an exam, should they be ‘supported’ by being allowed to resit? Him flunking a practical seems analogous to failing an exam to me.


  4. Putting aside the possibility of the foul play by the administration – the student did not fail just some random test. He failed practical seminar, in which he had to do actual counseling. What if he was insensitive to what client said? By insensitive I do not mean he did not cry together with the client. But productive confrontation is a skill and a function of the therapist’s personal development. Otherwise every asshole would be a great counselor. I am not implying anything about the student in question, I just recognize a possibility.


    1. I don’t think that kicking a student out of the program is justified if one practicum is failed. In any case, they chose not to terminate him for academic failure but, rather, brought empathy into the equation. I fail students quite often but I do it without bringing up their personal qualities. I’ve never heard anybody kicking out a student for being lazy. We terminate them for failing courses without discussing their personalities.


  5. There are individuals who should not be in some professions. They may be able to function under classroom conditions but may not be able to perform their job competently. The problem could lie in deep personality structure (probably not fixable), verbal and nonverbal communication skills (can be taught), or in temporary stress situations.


  6. He was terminated for failing the course (at least officially). Graduate students do get terminated for failing a course, it is already a big deal if they get a C. “Lack of empathy” was an explanation offered to him by the chief of counseling services, as to why he failed the seminar/practical counseling course.


      1. What indicates he/she is a jerk? The very fact he/she told the student what he/she told? How do you know it was arbitrary or with malicious intent and not a conclusion indeed based on observing three therapeutic sessions by a student?
        Maybe that chief of counseling services lacks empathy? But this would mean there are people in that counseling business who lack empathy…
        The only suspicious detail is if the student indeed did not get remedial opportunities / more help, while these opportunities were offered to others.


        1. I might be projecting but if any professor brought up my empathy or lack thereof in any context, I’d be insulted. In my experience, “empathy” is an empty concept that is used by people when they want to castigate others for having a different emotional makeup. Only in cases where we discuss actual sociopaths is bringing up empathy is justified.


  7. You’d mentioned traveling to St. Louis in the past but I didn’t realize you lived here. I’m autistic, also from St. Louis, and I’m finishing up my BA in history UMSL this semester. Where are you teaching?


      1. That’s awesome. SIUE is a pretty decent school. One of my friends is finishing up a degree in philosophy there and he really likes it. I was debating over whether to go there when I graduated high school, but a major factor was that UMSL could be reached on the Metrolink and SIUE only by bus.


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