Cornell University has made “dozens of improvements” to support and improve student well-being in response to the recommendations of the 2020 Mental Health Review Final Report, according to the Executive Accountability Committee set up to guide strategies for implementing changes.
An EAC statement said that the changes implemented thus far promote social connectedness and belonging for all students, reduce clinical wait times for students seeking mental health services, provide resources to faculty to create health-promoting classrooms, and create clear expectations for graduate student success.
Cornell University campus
EAC updates for 2022 noted that Cornell adopted the Okanagan Charter, which calls for Institutions of Higher Education to embed health into all aspects of campus culture, across the administration, operations and academic mandates; and lead health promotion action and collaboration locally and globally.
“Work has been underway to position Cornell as a Health-Promoting Campus by using a systemic, sustainable way to address campus mental health and well-being,” the updates said.
The Mental Health Review, carried out by internal and external review teams in 2019-2020, made 60 recommendations comprehensively calling for improvements in mental health and medical services, academic life, student well-being, and mental health awareness and proactive support.
Current EAC members include Ryan Lombardi, vice president for Student and Campus Life; Kathryn Boor, dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education; and Lisa Nishii, vice provost for Undergraduate Education.
Among the 2022 updates released by EAC:
Health Leave of Absence (HLOA)
Cornell established the position of a fulltime Health Leaves Coordinator within Cornell’s Student Disability Services (SDS). It said that the position is part of a new Health Leave of Absence (HLOA) process “that provides more support to students, consistency across colleges/schools/campuses, and assistance with navigating the HLOA process and university bureaucracy/resources.”
Under the new policy, coordination for HLOAs moves to a “new home” within SDS from Cornell’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). The coordinator serves as a resource for students throughout the leave and return processes and is a central point of information and contact for campus partners. Students must meet with the coordinator and receive a holistic plan for returning to campus, and are also encouraged to discuss accommodations with SDS.
Suicide Prevention Training
All CAPS clinical staff participated in Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) training during summer 2022 as its annual professional development. CAMS is an evidence-based therapeutic framework for suicide-specific assessment and treatment of a patient’s suicidal risk.
Clinical “Stepped-Care” Model
CAPS implemented a new stepped-care model of clinical services in Fall 2021 to provide rapid access within 48 hours to an initial brief Access Appointment that assesses students’ presenting concerns and relevant clinical factors and refers them to most appropriate service.
CAPS also began offering expanded clinical options, including workshops, additional group therapy programs, additional medication management options, single-session counseling, and telehealth services with Mantra Health.
Care & Crisis Services
The Dean of Students Office’s Care & Crisis Services Team, which identifies, assesses, and responds to concerns and/or disruptive behaviors by students who present a risk to the health or safety of the university or its members, implemented a new protocol including the utilization of a new student of concern referral form.
The university developed a comprehensive communication plan to regularly share updates with the campus community, utilizing Cornell’s mental health website and other key communication strategies.
Three work groups completed a year-long review of the Mental Health Review’s recommendations for advising, grading policies, and academic policies.
The Advising Working Group final report included these key action items: (a) develop department advising plans; (b) clarify advising roles and expectations of faculty, staff advisors, and peers; (c) strengthen professional development for staff and faculty advisors; (d) adopt best practices, accountability, and recognition for advising excellence; (e) develop consistent learning outcomes for well-being in advising seminars and programs; (f) collaborate with Institutional Research and Planning to assess advising needs of vulnerable student populations; (g) offer both in-person and virtual advising to optimize flexibility for students; and (h) provide students clear guidance for communicating with faculty when missing class due to a short illness.
The Grading Policies Working Group collected input from students, faculty, staff, and peer institutions to inform thoughtful deliberations about a wide range of academic stressors that may be particularly detrimental for student mental health as well as about new or improved forms of academic support for students. Topics explored by the Grading Policies Working Group include: (a) instituting a S/U-type grading system for the first semester of the first year; (b) implementing an early warning “flagging” system to identify struggling students based on early graded assessments; (c) developing more academic support courses, especially for introductory classes; (d) increasing the number of courses that offer the S/U grading option; (e) strongly discouraging norm-referenced grading; (f) elevating assessment and grading policies as fundamental to teaching excellence; (g) discouraging curving down and overly difficult tests that result in low numerical exam scores, and improving transparency about grading practices; and (h) eliminating the grade of A+ (which is used inconsistently, thereby creating inequities).
The Academic Policies Working Group collected input from students, faculty, staff, and peer institutions to inform thoughtful deliberations about a wide range of academic stressors that may be particularly detrimental for student mental health as well as about new or improved forms of academic support for students. This group deliberated the merits of: (a) limiting the number of credits allowed for first-semester first-year students to 16 (or slightly higher for degrees that require a higher number of credits); (b) reducing the overall number of evening prelims by restricting them to large courses; (c) developing a university policy for resolving exam conflicts; (d) regularizing faculty discussions about pedagogy and assessments; (e) providing safety escorts for students walking home after evening prelims; and (f) requiring information about key course elements—such as the nature of graded assignments—to be available to students prior to pre-enrollment. Most of the recommendations need to be further vetted by the faculty senate and other governance structures before they could be adopted. In addition, some would necessitate significant investments in technology solutions and time before they could be implemented.
Graduate Student Experience
The Graduate Advisor Feedback Task Force vetted its final report with the Graduate School, the Graduate School’s General Committee, the directors of Graduate Study, the vice provosts and provost and all college deans.
Key action items include the development of orientation materials, creation of a clearinghouse for resources, increasing faculty training around mentoring, anonymization of graduate student feedback on supervisor performance, and collecting graduate student feedback. Each graduate field will be asked to report annually on their progress in these areas.
Housing and Residential Life convened a task force to reevaluate the role of Resident Advisors.
Since this review, the RA position has shifted to focus more on intentional interactions with individual residents and resource referral on campus for challenges in and out of the classroom, and not as much programming and clear communication that they not take on the sole responsibly for the transition or well-being of any resident. RAs have also been trained on secondary trauma and how to better care for themselves when students do disclose difficult situations, and how to immediately refer that resident to resources and take of themselves in caring roles. The 2022-23 remuneration for the RA position has also changed to address concerns of how the RA compensation was negatively affecting the RA’s financial aid package.
The Skorton Center for Health Initiatives is taking over management of Cornell’s Victim Advocacy Program, as well as advising roles for the Empathy Assistance and Referral Service, a peer mentoring program known as EARS, and Cornell Minds Matter, a student mental health club.
Cornell Health, “in consultation with legal counsel, reconfigured” the drop-in service that offers informal, private consultation with a mental health counselor. Let’s Talk will be considered an outreach program, “eschewing clinical documentation” and falling under the federal education privacy law rather than the federal medical privacy statute.
Cornell leaders on October 26 signed the Okanagan Charter, which calls on Institutions of Higher Education to embed health into all aspects of campus culture, across the administration, operations and academic mandates, and lead health promotion action and collaboration locally and globally.
According to the Charter, its purpose is to 1) guide and inspire action by providing a framework that reflects the latest concepts, processes and principles; generate dialogue and research that expands local, regional, national and international networks, and accelerates action on, off and between campuses; and 3) mobilize international, cross-sector action for the integration of health in all policies and practices.
The Charter does not focus directly on mental health or use the term in its text, defining health “holistically, reflecting physical, mental and social well-being.”
Ryan Lombardi, vice president, Student and Campus Life, said the Charter’s principles “will help provide structure for the next phase of Cornell’s Student Mental Health Review, a collaborative process that has paved the way for a shared commitment to the betterment of mental health inside and outside of the classroom.”
The Charter was created and signed by education leaders at the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna, Canada. Representatives from the World Health Organization, Pan American Health Organization and UNESCO joined in the pledge.
Serving as Cornell’s executive sponsors of the Okanagan Charter are Martha E. Pollock, Cornell president; Christine Lovely, vice president and chief Human Resources officer; Lisa Nishii, vice provost for Undergraduate Education; Kathryn Boor, dean of the Graduate School and vice provost of Graduate Education; and Ryan Lombardi, vice president, Student and Campus Life.
According to the Cornell Chronicle, two collaborating advisory groups for campus well-being—one focused on students, the other on faculty and staff—will employ multidisciplinary approaches to explore and implement changes and sustain momentum over time.
“The Okanagan Charter is an important way for Cornell to both reaffirm and formalize our commitment to supporting the health of our students, faculty and staff,” Pollack said. “It will support us in seeking new ways of incorporating health-promoting behaviors into our campus culture, and in identifying and sharing best practices to support community well-being.”
The university abolished the Executive Accountability Committee, which consisted of four senior administrators as “executive sponsors,” and three “change leads” covering the academic community, campus community, and clinical services, and replaced it with a 25-member Student Well-Being Council. The council provides oversight for campus mental health and well-being broadly, including recommendations from the Mental Health Review report, as well as “new priorities” as a health-promoting campus within the Okanagan Charter.
The council will use a new evaluation plan to measure programs, policies, and campus culture. The university also created a campus-wide Community of Practice to implement key recommendations and “identify evidence-informed strategies to implement Health-Promoting Campus strategies.”
The Community of Practice will collect and analyze data, implement key strategies, provide best practices, and “identify ways to regularly engage students, staff, and faculty to provide feedback, stay involved, and support health and well-being on our campus” through the work of six Community of Practice committees.
The university will create a “Well-Being Vision for Cornell” to guide its health-promoting work.
Student Well-Being Council Members:
- Julie Edwards (chair), director of Skorton Center for Health Initiatives
- Lisa Nishii (executive sponsor), vice provost for Undergraduate Education
- Kathryn Boor (executive sponsor), dean of the Graduate School and vice provost of Graduate Education
- Ryan Lombardi (executive sponsor), vice president, Student and Campus Life
- Eve DeRosa, dean of Faculty
- Marla Love, dean of students, Student and Campus Life
- Abby Priehs, director, Housing and Residential Life
- Dave Honan, assistant vice president, Public Safety
- Michelle Artibee, director, Workforce Wellbeing
- Jai Sweet, dean of students, College of Veterinary Medicine
- Linda Croll Howell, senior director, Employee Experience
- Markeisha Miner, dean of students, Law School
- Amanda Shaw, associate dean of students, SC Johnson College of Business
- Kim Anderson, assistant director, Sustainability
- Amy Gaulke, executive director, Student and Campus Life Communications
- Amy Foster, deputy director, Athletics
- Kristina Im (student), Student Assembly, Health and Wellness Committee
- Ngoc Truong (student), Student Assembly, Health and Wellness Committee
- Andrew Juan (student), University Assembly
- Kate Carter-Cram (student), Graduate and Professional Student Assembly
- Laura Santacrose, assistant director, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives
- Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, program director, Mental Health Promotion, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives
- Abi Dubovi, mental health program specialist, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives
- Jennifer Austin, director of Communications, Cornell Health
- Bonnie Comella, associate vice provost for Undergraduate Education