April 23, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Needs to Be More Transparent About Mental Health Initiatives

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Last month, the Cornell administration announced a review of our campus’s mental health system. Throughout the last year, Cornell Graduate Students United has campaigned for just such a review. Over 900 graduate students signed our petition asking for an external review of the system, in addition to other demands, and we are glad the administration has finally acknowledged the mental health crisis on campus.

Whether or not the proposed mental health review succeeds, however, depends on its structure. As it stands, there is almost no public information on the administration’s proposed mental health review. From what we do know from the Cornell Health website, the administration has called for a ‘comprehensive’ process that centers around student input. In order for this process to be an effective and transparent audit that all stakeholders and community members can trust, it ought to be transparent. Though the review has yet to begin, the lack of information surrounding the review has already worried us, and we find the little we do know concerning.

On the Cornell Health website, we are told that it will be conducted by two groups: an internal review board of staff, students and professors and an external review board. In a discussion sponsored by Cornell Minds Matter on April 12, details were given about the breakdown of the internal review board. Besides co-chairs Miranda Swanson and Marla Love, the board will consist of two to three staff, two to three faculty and four to five total undergraduate, graduate and professional students.  It is hard for us to understand why only four to five students will be involved. Not only does the number seem arbitrary, but what is more troubling is the obfuscated selection process for these student representatives. We won’t get to vote on student representatives. Instead, they will be chosen by the co-chairs through a nomination process that closed on April 22. It would not surprise us if this deadline passed before most potential nominees knew about it at all.

While we are happy to see the review progress so quickly, this pace comes at the cost of wider transparency — while we do not know who will be conducting the external review yet, we learned from the Cornell Minds Matter speakers that they have already been selected. Due to the structure of the review, this means that the few students who do sit on the internal board have already been cut out of one of the most important decisions: determining who will conduct the external review. The externality of the mental health review was a vital point for the graduate students who signed our petition and joined our mental health campaign because it prevents Cornell from grading its own work or hand picking overly sympathetic reviewers. While the reviewers picked by the administration may end up being competent and diligent, it is concerning that a review process that claims to center the broader community’s input does not seem to value such input at this critical stage.

The administration’s concessions to an external review came on the eve of CGSU’s second mental health rally. Robert Harrison, the chairman of the board of trustees, accepted our petition in front of the Statler Hotel, where the board was meeting. CGSU played a vital role in raising awareness and giving graduate students a voice in the struggle against the mental health crisis on Cornell’s campus. Despite that, the administration has not only refused to acknowledge the work CGSU has done to bring the gravity of the crisis to their attention, but refuses to work with us to address it. In his email announcing mental health concessions, Ryan Lombardi, vice president of student & campus life, failed to mention graduate students as a group affected by the University’s mental health policy. The limitation of graduate student representation on the internal review committee to one or two members continues Cornell’s denial of graduate student input. All this happens despite the fact that studies show how graduate workers are six times more likely than the general population to experience mental health issues.

CGSU has been reaching out and listening to graduate workers, collecting testimonials and working to understand the needs of our community. Our petition is not just a list of names — it is a list of demands that comprise the minimum of what we need to address the crisis. In addition to an external review, Cornell graduate students demand gym membership reimbursement, an improved referrals process and increased group therapy offerings as well as required mental health training for CAPS members and faculty advisors with a focus on the needs of LGBTQ students and students of color. For CGSU, winning means not only meeting this bare minimum, but also ensuring that the external review is an effective and transparent audit that reflects the graduate worker perspective.

Ethan Ritz is a graduate student at Cornell and a member of CGSU. Comments may be sent to [email protected].