Chants of “Hey hey! Ho ho! Cornell’s greed has got to go!” could be heard from the courtyard between Uris Hall and Statler Hotel Thursday afternoon as graduate students gathered to make their discontent towards the University’s current mental health services loud and clear.
Cornell Graduate Students United hosted the rally to advocate for improved mental health services at Cornell, which have long been criticized for excessive wait times and understaffing. The event featured an appearance by Robert Harrison, the chairman of Cornell’s Board of Trustees, who listened to student testimonies before accepting CGSU’s petition for institutional improvements.
“Cornell has not recognized the demands on our petition to them we delivered to them last December,” said David Blatter grad in his opening statements prior to Harrison’s scheduled speech, referring to the organization’s last high-profile rally. “They have not responded directly to the demands, nor are they committed to meeting any of them.”
Blatter and Natalie Hofmeister, grad, gave speeches addressing issues within Cornell’s mental health programs and highlighted Wednesday’s emailed announcement from Vice President of Campus and Student Life Ryan Lombardi, which outlined changes to their current protocol.
“This is a really big deal, and this could be tied directly to what we are doing. Them releasing this information on the eve of our gathering here shows that they’re listening to what we are saying,” Hofmeister said, but Blatter pointed out that the email did not mention graduate students or expanding the number of hired staff members.
Issues expressed by other attendees of the rally included therapist understaffing, which speakers argued has led to complaints of poor availability and long wait times.
As part of a campaign to tackle these issues, CGSU presented the crowd with their petition of proposed reforms, among which included a “public, external review of CAPS,” expanded graduate student group therapy and additional training for CAPS therapists to better accommodate students who identify as LGBT and who identify as students of color.
According to the rally’s Facebook event page, the petition has been signed by over 900 people.
Once Harrison arrived, rally organizers presented the chairman with students who spoke on their past experiences before reading him CGSU’s list of proposals.
Thea Kozakis grad stated that while “CAPS therapy can be so valuable,” the services are “so understaffed that is not available to those who are having an emotional crisis.”
She also mentioned how it took one week to get the required introductory phone call to set up a meeting with a therapist — a barrier that Lombardi’s recent email stated now will be eliminated in favor of same-day, in-person appointments.
Anonymous anecdotes of people’s experiences with CAPS — a service that provides counseling for over 20 percent of Cornell students each year, according to its website — were also presented, with one story notably alleging that a therapist listened to a student’s story and replied “that’s bullshit.”
Blatter then read Harrison CGSU’s demands for the University, which included accepting the conditions of the petition, creating greater transparency in the implementation process of the policies stated in Lombardi’s email and hiring more staff members.
Harrison spoke after the presentation, saying that “student health and safety [is] the single highest priority of the Board.”
“I and the rest of the Board fully support the work that Ryan Lombardi is doing on behalf of the administration to figure out how to apply practices to enhance the services and the staffing of those services at Cornell Health for mental health care,” the chairman added.
As Harrison left the rally, students broke out into a chant of “I believe that we will win!”
Hofmeister said that while she appreciated Harrison’s appearance at the rally, she wants to see concrete action from the Board itself.
“To have the chairman of the Board meet with us means that we know we are passing our demands to them,” Hofmeister said. “The message that I got is that we are doing our due diligence in letting them know exactly what we need, and now we want to see a response from them that contains actionable items.”
Although the organization said it supports improved mental health services for all students, CGSU specifically concentrated its demands on improving services for grad students, who Hofmeister argued are subject to unique stressors.
“Graduate school puts us in a particularly precarious position as workers,” Hofmeister said. “There are studies that show grad students experience disproportionately large amounts of anxiety and depression.”