April 4, 2010

The Way Forward

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In the midst of any life challenge, we must look toward the future and define our way forward.  This is true of individuals, it’s true of institutions, it’s true of Cornell.  We have had a very challenging year on the Hill, with austere budgets, reorganizations and, most difficult, the loss of students.

It is very important that we honor and remember those who passed, and equally as important to look to the brightness of our futures, as individuals and as a university.

With the loss of friends, especially in the cases of suicide, we often wonder what could have been done differently. Although Cornell has long been a national leader in university-based mental health programs, our superb colleagues at Gannett are taking steps to provide even more effective service and outreach. After consulting with a wide range of experts, we have set up temporary barriers on our bridges as an interim measure to reduce the chances of impulsive acts and have begun the process of identifying long-term solutions for community consideration, using the expertise of our Facilities Services professionals, staff at Gannett, faculty in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning and experts from beyond our campus.

But if there were ever a time to have a broader and more holistic view of our support for students, it is now. The suicides are but the tip of the iceberg, indicative of a much larger spectrum of mental health challenges faced by many on our campus and on campuses everywhere, not only among students but among faculty and staff.  The pressures of the economic environment and our responses to it, added to the already intense milieu of a top research university, should make us all reconsider how we support each other and how we ourselves seek and accept support.

During my regular meeting with the Daily Sun editorial leadership last week, Associate Editor Tony Manfred ’11 put it quite clearly when he asked, “How is the culture going to change?”  How indeed do we find ways to improve the climate for students at Cornell without jeopardizing the academic excellence and rigor that brought us here in the first place?

One answer, I believe, is to consider the totality of the student experience. And so today I call on my colleagues in the faculty, staff and student body of Cornell, as well as our alumni, to focus on the myriad aspects of student life that together frame the experience of our 20,600 students.

• I call on faculty members to reflect on the classroom environment as well as grading practices, the academic calendar, and advising systems. I ask that faculty think about ways to create a supportive context for students without compromising the academic excellence and rigor that you have achieved.

• I call on our staff in Gannett to continue your pioneering work in preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic services with the focus on identifying and reaching those at risk, in collaboration with faculty, staff and students across campus.

• I call on all students, faculty and staff to change our attitudes and foster new behaviors to encourage and enable all Cornellians to seek help when we need it and reduce or eliminate the stigma attached to those who do so.  I have been helped by counseling and hope that many more will break the barriers that separate us from getting the aid we all sometimes need.

• I call on students to reach out to roommates, classmates, and friends who appear to be in pain, encourage them to seek help, praise them when they do, and let someone know if they don’t get the help they need.

• I call on staff throughout Cornell to add your wise counsel to the consideration of those aspects of the student experience for which all members of the Cornell community should feel some sense of responsibility.

• I call on alumni to share with us ideas based on your experiences and your expertise.

I have asked Vice President Susan Murphy, Provost Kent Fuchs and Dean of Faculty Bill Fry to coordinate this comprehensive examination of the student experience and to share with the community ideas and plans to support our students.

Among the many helpful and moving communications I’ve received in response to the events of this year was an email from Romance Studies Professor Richard Klein.  He wisely reminds us to “look inward as a community” to recognize the balance that we need to achieve and exhorts us to remind students that “the Groves of Academe are as much a garden as a factory.”

Thank you, Richard.  Now, to the way forward.

David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at david.skorton@cornell.edu. From David appears monthly this semester.

Original Author: David J. Skorton