November 30, 2010

Students, Admins Aim to Promote ‘Caring’ Online

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In response to the string of student suicides earlier this year, Cornell launched its “Caring Community” campaign to promote University support resources and foster discussion about mental health issues on campus. A group of administrators and students are now hoping to bring the “Caring Community” initiative to cyberspace.

“The issue is how we can use technology to our advantage and not to the disadvantage of others,” Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67 said Tuesday night at a community forum, which was attended by about a dozen administrators from a range of offices and about 10 students.

Tracy Mitrano law ’95, director of information technology policy and one of the forum’s organizers, said that since electronic communication is such a prominent part of everyone’s life at Cornell, it’s important to unite as a community to confront the adverse affects of technology, such as cyberbullying.

“For someone who feels [like] the victim of that kind of communication — to be reading it alone in his or her room, to feel like it’s expressed for all the world to see — the experience can really be crushing,” Mitrano said. “At this forum, we’re providing an opportunity to get away from the computer and bring the humanity and face-to-face communication back into the nature of community here at Cornell.”

The recent rise in popularity of anonymous gossip websites, such as CollegeACB, is one example of the intersection between technology and promoting a “caring community,” both administrators and students said.

“There are a lot of different things that need to be dealt with when it comes to mental health on campus,” said Andrew Brokman ‘11, Student Assembly representative-at-large. “It’s important that we come together as a community when members are being attacked. Gossip websites are something we have to deal with.”

Several weeks ago, Brokman co-sponsored an S.A. resolution that condemned CollegeACB. The resolution, which was passed by the S.A., urged students to boycott the anonymous gossip site as a means of trying to put it out of business.

“The boycott symbolizes collective action, which is the only way this website will stop getting viewers,” Brokman said. “We don’t want this website to be able to make money off harming student’s reputations.”

The issue of defining acceptable behavior on Cornell Listservs — one of the primary ways that student groups mobilize and communicate among members — was another main focus of the forum Tuesday night.

Kiranjit Longaker, assistant dean of students, said that campus community members have long grappled with issues surrounding the use of Listservs. However, in recent months, she said, one widespread incident has especially highlighted the need for dialogue about what is appropriate.

In mid-October, a female student posted to large Listserv allegations that a male student, whom she called out by name in the message, had assaulted another female student in an altercation at Level B in Collegetown. The e-mail sparked a torrent of responses from other students, faculty and staff on a range of campus Listservs, and the incident is still under investigation.

Longaker said that it’s important to distinguish between “what you can legally get away with and what, as a community, we want to say are our boundaries or limits.” The University generally only intervenes in communication on its servers if it suspects someone is breaking the law or policy, or if there is a health or safety issue.

At the forum, some students said that student leaders need to step up to better police the Listservs they run. Others emphasized the need for individual organizations to have a virtual space, via their Listservs, to internally and privately discuss issues.

Most students agreed on the need for face-to-face dialogue in an informal setting on campus to deal with controversial or problematic issues that arise in cyberspace.

Sara Rahman ’12, lamented the lack of an intercultural physical space on campus.

“It’s important to have a physical space to talk with people from different backgrounds,” Rahman said. “If you have an academic problem, you can go see an advisor. If you have a social problem, though, there is no place to physically go.”

According to Longaker, the assistant dean of students, the issues surrounding civility and appropriate messaging are not unique to the virtual world.

“The core problem isn’t electronic communication; it’s how people interact with each other,” she said.

Although the forum produced no concrete solutions to the problems, Mitrano, the IT policy director, said it was still productive.

“It just got people talking,” she said. “That’s sort of the magic irony of having a forum on technology: that we got people in the same room, talking face-to-face.”

Original Author: Michael Stratford