Feb. 16, 2011

Student well-being is top priority, administrators say

panelists
Jason Koski/University Photography
From left, Provost Kent Fuchs, Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy, University Editor David Brand and Dean of the University Faculty William Fry discuss the expansion of mental health programs as well as new initiatives that have been put in place since last spring.

Last April, Cornell President David Skorton asked three top administrators to coordinate a comprehensive examination of student mental health and well-being.

Provost Kent Fuchs, Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy and Dean of the University Faculty William Fry, in a televised roundtable airing on CornellCast and posted at the Caring Community website for subsequent viewing, discussed the expansion of mental health programs as well as new initiatives that have been put in place since last spring.

Fuchs stressed that the first step was to make the support of student health and well-being explicit in the university's DNA -- its strategic plan: "That plan describes Cornell as a caring community," and second, Fuchs said, "it says that we'll work to enhance our educational excellence in the context of that caring environment."

Building on the strategic plan, the Division of Student and Academic Services (SAS) has launched a number of initiatives, said Murphy, citing several examples.

For instance, Orientation now includes "Real Students, Reel Stories," a 15-minute video in which student leaders, recent graduates and alumni talk about the challenges new students may face, such as problems with roommates, coming out, plagiarism and academics. The video also captures Skorton recalling his difficulties as an undergraduate; and in particular, one semester when he dealt with family illnesses, he flunked a course.

Roundtable video on CornellCast

A video of a conversation about student mental health and well-being is now available on CornellCast. It features Provost Kent Fuchs, Vice President of Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy and Dean of the University Faculty William Fry.

In the fall, the College of Engineering and Gannett Health Services piloted a new program with all first-year engineers. "Notice and Respond: Friend to Friend" engages participants in discussion about a film in which two students encounter a friend who is distressed and grapple with whether and how to help.

On the clinical front, access to counseling services will be better met with the help of an additional $1 million allocated to Gannett Health Services this year, Murphy said. She highlighted Gannett's innovative "Let's Talk" program, which strives to lower barriers to make it easier to ask for help. Any student can meet with a counselor for a free consultation during walk-in hours at various Let's Talk sites around campus. The more these kinds of resources are visible to the community, the more they will remove the stigma attached to asking for help, Murphy said.

Furthermore, she noted, student leaders have played an extraordinary role in working to change the campus culture, from the Lift Your Spirits and Caring Community events organized by the Student Assembly to the work of Cornell Minds Matter to make more visible the issue of student mental health.

On the academic front, Fuchs, Murphy and Fry have asked deans and chairs to look at curricula and majors and determine appropriate academic workloads. And each faculty member is asked to consider their teaching techniques and how much material they cover in each lecture, homework assignment and exam, Fuchs said. "There's a place for actually reducing stress yet increasing how much the students learn."

Meanwhile, the Faculty Senate has been exploring changes to academic policies. They include adding mechanisms to ensure advisers meet with advisees face-to-face, limiting academic assignments over breaks, asking individual faculty to consider demands on students when structuring syllabi, and changing the academic calendar. "There are eight weeks of classes before the spring break. That can place, I think, considerable pressure on students, so we're looking at what to do with the spring semester," Fry said. And the senate's Educational Policy Committee is considering a request from students to limit the number of exams a student takes within a certain time period. That would particularly help freshmen and sophomores, whose exams often cluster within two or three days, Murphy said.

Many faculty members have also been mindful to make the effort to promote meaningful conversations with students, Fry said. "That's probably the most important kind of response to this question," he said.

Other initiatives include increased financial aid and career counseling to help students navigate a tight job market after graduation.

Cornell is committed to enhancing its efforts to support student well-being, Murphy said. "If we can keep that going and make our choices wisely, it will continue to improve."