May 5, 2010

Teach Your Students Well

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After the campus was rocked by three suicides in under a month earlier this year, much of the response from students and administrators alike has been concerned with “changing the culture” at Cornell. Changing the culture is indeed a necessary step to advance mental health at Cornell, but it is worrisome that most of the initiative thus far has come from the students and administration — not the faculty.

At Cornell, just like every other university, academics and the pursuit of knowledge are at the core of every student’s experience. The faculty, possibly more so than students and administrators, have the ability to truly change the culture of academics and improve mental health at Cornell. Thus far, they have not displayed much interest in doing so.

Some faculty reached out to their students following the suicides. An act as simple as e-mailing a struggling student can do wonders for that student’s stress levels. Reaching out to students takes little effort, but can be understandably intimidating for professors not used to such relationships with their students. The deans should put more emphasis on promoting this kind of behavior year-round, and reward faculty members who show initiative in reaching out to their students.

The faculty, with logistical aid from the administration, should also engage in a critical review of the academic advising system. Students should be paired with faculty members who truly desire to advise undergraduates, rather than professors chosen at random from that student’s department. The academic advising system should be a comprehensive, well-rounded resource to help students with a variety of needs, rather than a walking, talking human checklist of classes needed to graduate.

One change that could decompress the current campus climate is to make a change to the academic calendar. The eight-week period between the end of Winter Break and the beginning of Spring Break is the longest stretch of uninterrupted classes at any Ivy except Columbia — the others get vacations on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or President’s Day, or they start Spring Break earlier.

There is also precedent for such a change. In the fall of 1977, after a string of three suicides, students gathered on West Campus and collectively yelled the catchphrase, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” In response, the University declared a mental state of emergency and began emphasizing suicide prevention — a process that included a mid-October respite from classes, or as it is known today, Fall Break. The intensity of the grueling eight-week stretch at the beginning of spring semester can be remedied by a similar change to our current academic calendar.

These options need more discussion and consideration before they are implemented, but the responsibility falls to the faculty to instigate these discussions. The administration and students can respond to suicide by putting up fences, extending counseling hours and organizing rallies on the Arts Quad. But ultimately, the culture of a university is set primarily by its faculty.