Cornell Says “No” to Independent Review of Mental Health Policies

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack this week rejected a request to establish an independent task force to review the mental health challenges facing Cornell students as well as the university’s policies, programs, and practices to address them.

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Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack

The request was made 10 months ago by Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, the parents of Sophie Hack MacLeod (’14), a Cornell fine arts student in the School of Architecture, Art, and Planning who died by suicide in Ithaca at age 23 on March 26, 2016 while on a health leave of absence taken in her senior year.

The request was originally sent in a letter to Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III and then forwarded to Pollack after she took up her post as Cornell’s 14th president in April 2017. The letter was also cc’d to Cornell Board of Trustees Chairman Robert S. Harrison.

In the detailed 13-page letter dated March 27, 2017, MacLeod and Hack said that in their experience as the parents of a Cornell student who took her own life they observed “systemic failure” in Cornell’s mental health policy and practice affecting areas such as suicide prevention, mental health counseling, and sexual violence.

This, they wrote, included a failure to “fully and openly recognize the magnitude of the mental health challenges facing Cornell, and to address them with best practices backed by human and financial resources commensurate to the scale.”

MacLeod and Hack said they observed “an institutional mindset reflecting complacency and defensiveness that appears to prioritize Cornell’s public image over the welfare of students struggling with mental disorders.”

Describing the mental health crisis confronting today’s college students, MacLeod and Hack cited several studies including the 2016 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. The report said that collected data from 139 college counseling centers showed that 33.2 percent of 150,483 college students seeking counseling in the 2015-16 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” That was a marked increase from 23.8 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 9.3 percent of the students seeking counseling had reported actually making a suicide attempt.

The letter went on:

“In a constructive spirit, we call on you to establish an independent, external-led task force on student mental health without delay to review and assess the mental health challenges for Cornell students and the university’s policies, programs, and practices to address them; and to make recommendations to the Cornell President to ensure that the university is adopting and implementing current best practices.”

In her initial response on May 3, 2017, Pollack did not address the request for an independent review but thanked MacLeod and Hack for “voicing your broader concerns about Cornell’s policies and programs regarding student mental health.” She added, “We strive to always be open to how we can do better.”

In an email on January 11, Pollack turned down the request for a task force. She also declined a November 28 follow up request from MacLeod and Hack for a meeting to discuss the request for an independent review with the Cornell president in person.

Pollack’s email said in part:

“Please know that we share your commitment to ensuring that we provide the best support possible for our students. …

“We have been thoroughly reviewing our operating standards and capacity at Cornell Health this fall, including institutional and board-level conversations about the operational and strategic direction of the center. On a related note, we reviewed our most recent external assessment provided by the JED Foundation along with their subsequent visit to our campus this past summer. We will continue ongoing engagement with the foundation to ensure we are providing holistic support.

“While I acknowledge your request that we establish an additional independent review of the Cornell Health operation, it is not our intent to do so. We appreciate your support and look forward to our continued collaboration in the future.”

MacLeod and Hack established The Sophie Fund in their daughter’s memory in 2016 to advocate for mental health initiatives aiding young people in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

Commenting on Pollack’s decisions, MacLeod and Hack said in a statement:

“We have done our best to responsibly bring our concerns to the attention of the university’s senior leadership. President Pollack’s decisions don’t improve our confidence that Cornell has grasped the magnitude of its mental health challenges or fully stepped up to meet them. We hope the internal review she speaks of will be comprehensive and not limited to Cornell Health, and that its findings will be transparently released to the Cornell and Ithaca communities.”

According to Cornell’s website, it ranks 14th among the world’s universities in the 2018 QS World University Rankings, with an enrollment of about 22,000 students.