Zoe Yang / Sun Contributor

Cornell releases its mental health review Thursday afternoon, calling on feedback from the Cornell community.

October 23, 2020

Mental Health Review Finds Widespread Issues in Cornell’s Competitive Academic and Social Environments

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Well before the pandemic, students scrambled to take the heaviest course loads. They spent the beginning of their semesters dressed in suits for coffee chats in Zeus, vying for spots in some of the University’s most coveted organizations.

Yet, all the effort to thrive in a competitive academic and social environment has led to a lack of a work-life balance and difficulties in finding a community on campus, Cornell’s mental health review found.

In an effort to capture student mental health and wellbeing, Cornell released the results of its mental health review Thursday afternoon. The report was part of President Martha E. Pollack’s initiative to undertake a comprehensive student mental health review in 2018.

But the results don’t fully account for the pandemic’s impact on student mental health — most of the University’s mental health review was done in fall 2019.

Specifically, the report found that the University had a pervasive culture of competition academically and socially, students lacked time for self-care because of heavy course loads and extracurricular commitments, students experienced difficulty in finding and building a community on campus and they found it difficult to navigate Cornell’s decentralized campus structure.

As a result of the main takeaways from the mental health review, Cornell will institute a permanent mental health committee to oversee the implementation of the recommendations outlined in the report, monitor the University’s progress and conduct further reviews on the recommendations when needed.

“Implementing key recommendations will help to improve the well-being of our community, and more specifically, the well-being of our undergraduate, graduate and professional students,” said Kathryn Boor ’80, graduate school dean and vice provost for graduate education, in a University press release, who is also one of the administrators tasked with executing the initiatives laid out in the report.

Many of the issues students cited in the report appeared to have existed before the pandemic, yet now, during a highly unconventional semester, it’s likely that the news issues have arisen and old ones have been exacerbated, according to Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi.

Lombardi added that widespread concerns with racial justice in the U.S. have also impacted how the University plans to prioritize recommendations in the report.

“To now put today’s context — on top of the recommendations that came in that are very sound — [we need] to make sure that we put together a plan that’s most suitable for Cornell today, knowing what we know and where we are today,” Lombardi said.

For the recommendations, the survey categorized them as “immediate,” “intermediate” and “aspirational.” Lombardi said these categorizations derived from the report’s reviewers, which consisted of a mental health committee that included students, faculty and staff as well as an external committee made up of national health experts. Ideally, the University aims to prioritize student input on what recommendations should be prioritized.

“What we really want to do with this report now is to have this conversation about what’s most important to our students,” Lombardi told The Sun.

To ameliorate the stresses of a highly competitive academic environment among undergraduate students, the report recommended a reevaluation of grading on a curve and exploring the possibility of a pass/fail system for first-year students. A move to a pass/fail first semester would mirror colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University and the California Institute of Technology which already have similar systems in place.

Other recommendations for easing academic pressures included administering a policy about having multiple prelims in the same timespan and offering mandatory advisory meetings for students.

One of the concerns the report cited in a footnote was the low response rate among international students, causing recommendation for international students to be shaped by faculty and staff input instead. Lombardi said he wasn’t sure why the internal and external committees had trouble receiving feedback from international students, but that staff who have worked directly with international students had a “good pulse” on recognizing the challenges the community faces.

Compounded with a competitive academic environment, the review also found that selective clubs and desire for executive board positions also played into a lack of a social connection on campus. In particular, students of color have faced barriers in trying to join many of these selective organizations, with many saying that such organizations perpetuate a lack of diversity.

“These barriers lead to rejection and loneliness, often felt most keenly by the newest members of the Cornell community and those with diverse backgrounds,” the report read.

Students also reported that Greek life was the primary venue for social gatherings, and both committees suggested that the University sponsor more events as alternatives to Greek life as it undertakes a series of reforms to confront the system’s issues with sexual assault, hazing and alcohol misuse.

Among the recommendations to improve Cornell’s social environment, the report proposed that the University create an orientation course that gives students the scope of faculty, administration and staff roles in order to ease the college transition. To help with campus wellbeing, the survey’s reviewers found that Cornell should start hosting weekly wellness events open to all students and expand access to free physical fitness opportunities.

Now that the results are out, top administrators will be the ones to carry out the survey’s recommendations and implementation, Lombardi said. Along with Lombardi and Boor, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Lisa Nishii and Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president for student and campus life for health and wellbeing, will be part of an executive accountability committee. These administrators will be tasked with getting further feedback from students on prioritization of the recommendations, Lombardi said.

“We really want to do this in a collaborative manner,” Lombardi said. “Again, it’s most important to me that this what we do implement reflects the priorities of our community.”

Johnathan Stimpson ’21 contributed reporting. 

Read the full report here.