The University is currently working to find permanent sources of funding to maintain levels of spending at the Gannett Health Center that were increased in the wake of the string of student suicides in 2010. In March 2011, a year after the suicides, Cornell increased Gannett’s funding by $1 million through a combination of one-time donations and University funding. The added funding is quickly running out.
Rather than letting the added funding expire after nearly a year and a half without a gorge-related suicide, Cornell is continuing to make this issue a priority by finding sources of permanent funding for counseling services. At an institution like Cornell with so many competing demands, it is commendable that the University is making this effort to ensure that a cluster of deaths never happens again.
This money will go toward maintaining counseling positions that will help the University better serve students in distress. With the $1 million, the University created six counseling positions. These counselors provide crisis intervention, counseling, outpatient psychiatric care, outreach, and referral services to Cornell students. These positions are important, especially since there has been a surge in demand for these services in the past several years.
However, expanding counseling services, while necessary in the short term, only deals with the symptoms of the root problems. Until the University can address the underlying problem of stress, it will always be looking for more money to finance these expensive programs. At the same time that the University looks for sources of alternative funding for these counseling positions, it must strive to create a climate where there is less of a need for these positions in the first place.
The University has taken several steps that aim to address underlying causes of stress. The Faculty Senate passed a resolution that encouraged professors not to assign work over breaks, and the University has been working to redesign the academic calendar to add more breaks. These moves, if successful, will bear the largest results, not result in substantial costs, and do not come with the cost of compromised academic quality. However, these steps are still incomplete.
Another way to change the climate that is still not finalized is creating a curriculum where the quality and relevance of coursework is stressed above the quantity. A year ago, Provost Kent Fuchs, Vice President of Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73 and Dean of Faculty William Fry Ph.D. ’70 asked deans and chairs to look at curricula and majors and determine appropriate academic workloads. “There’s a place for actually reducing stress yet increasing how much the students learn,” Fuchs said. However, we question to what extent faculty and deans have been held accountable to this charge.
The availability of counseling services and support that the community has provided to those in distress are steps towards changing the climate, but they deal largely with the symptoms. While searching for more funding for these mental health problems, the University cannot lose focus on the underlying problems pervasive at Cornell.