As the 2021-22 academic year begins, Cornell University reports that it continues to implement changes related to student mental health and wellbeing. In messages welcoming students back to campus, university administration leaders highlighted the virtues of kindness and self-care.
Willard Straight Hall, Cornell University
Cornell announced changes to the 49-year-old, student-led Empathy Assistance and Referral Service, known as EARS, citing recommendations made in Cornell’s 2020 Mental Health Review as well as an Office of Risk Management determination that peer counseling is not covered under the university’s general liability insurance.
Cornell unveiled a new model consisting of peer mentoring, training, and outreach in which EARS Peer Mentors, Empathy Chairs, and Liaisons will expand the organization’s outreach to Cornell undergraduate, graduate, and professional student communities.
“The final report of the Mental Health Review underscores the need for significant culture change at Cornell,” Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and well-being, told the Cornell Chronicle. “The new EARS model aims to expand outreach and social connection to students with diverse interests, backgrounds and identities, including those with identities that have been marginalized. It also offers concrete opportunities for student organizations to support campus-based student resilience, social connection and help-seeking efforts. This kind of active engagement is exactly what our campus needs at this time.”
Cornell’s Executive Accountability Committee (EAC) charged with implementing recommendations announced the launch of a new website as a centralized platform on resources for students, staff, faculty, and families who seek guidance on supporting students and their mental health needs. The EAC said that it would work with groups and teams across campus to expand the site’s content.
The EAC also announced the launch of a new web page to provide guidance to faculty, staff, and teaching assistants about how to support student mental health.
Other notable EAC updates about the implementation of student mental health recommendations:
—An advising working group was formed to address academic advising, clarifying the role of advisors across campus, training for advisors, implementing best practices, and assessing advising needs for vulnerable populations.
—A sub working group was formed to review the Student of Concern notification tool.
—The Graduate School is spearheading a Graduate Field Handbook for each field so that departments have documented, clear, and consistent standards for degree completion.
—A task force is being formed to develop a strategy for graduate students to provide feedback to be implemented by the end of fall 2021.
—A working group will create a document outlining mutual expectations between advisors and advisees.
—Training programs are being created to develop mentoring skills.
—The Student Evaluation of Teaching Committee is working on improvements to the course evaluation tool.
—Academic policies working groups are exploring possible changes:
- Eliminating forced distribution grading (grading on a curve).
- Instituting pass/fail (or S/U) grading for first semester, first-year students.
- Limiting the number of credits that students may take each semester.
- Prohibiting evening exams and improving exam scheduling to prevent students from having exam clusters.
- Requiring faculty to make available to students during pre-enrollment certain components of course syllabi most important to students and feasible for faculty, such as information about course workload and assessments.
- Expecting departments to identify key stressors in the student experience and strategies to mitigate them.
—Cornell’s director of Financial Aid and Student Employment will be required to include a focus on financial wellness.
—Cornell’s associate director of Student Employment will be required to include a focus on using student employment to create a sense of wellbeing, personal growth, and campus connection for students.
—Faculty have been sent reminders and/or suggestions to consider mental health and wellbeing in the classroom, including transparency of class policies and making syllabi available during pre-enrollment.
—A committee will be charged with examining and implementing recommendations related to undergraduate orientation for August 2022.
—Cornell Health initiated a work group to review patient advocacy policies and processes with the goal of making recommendations such as: staffing and representation, standardizing engagement with concerned parties and follow up with staff/supervisors, training for those in the role, and processes for identifying opportunities for system improvement.
—Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) updated training for staff and streamlined risk documentation in notes to continue to advance an evidenced-based approach for managing the care of individuals experiencing suicidality.
—CAPS integrated professional development trainings into monthly staff meetings and biannual retreats that have included risk management and documentation as well as multicultural competency.
“As we begin this new year together, I ask you each to chart your course with knowledge and with kindness,” President Martha E. Pollack told students on August 26. “Measure your progress both with the skills you build and the competence you gain—and with the connections and the respect and the kindness shared between yourself and your fellow travelers.”
Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, encouraged students to avoid comparing themselves to their peers, and to be patient and generous with others as well as themselves.
“We invite each of you to reflect and consider how your actions—as an individual or as a member of a group, department, team, college or organization—can support your own well-being and also help to advance positive culture change on campus,” the EAC said in a message to the Cornell community.