Report Card: D- for Cornell’s Mental Health Leave of Absence Policy

In a scathing critique of student mental health at Ivy League schools, a new report gives Cornell University a grade of D- for its mental health leave of absence policy. No Ivy scored higher than a D, and Yale and Dartmouth were assigned F grades.

“The leave of absence policies do not reflect institutional commitment to supporting students with mental health disabilities,” the report said. “When it comes to inclusion of students with mental health disabilities, the Ivy League schools do not provide the leadership that the landscape of higher education desperately needs…The findings demonstrate that the Ivy League schools, the most elite institutions in our nation, are failing to lead the sector of higher education in supporting students with mental health disabilities.”

The Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based organization advocating for and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society, issued the report in December. The report, “The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health in the Ivy League,” was authored by Miriam Heyman, a foundation program officer responsible for the development and oversight of disability inclusion programs.

While generally critical of how universities are meeting student mental health challenges, the report focuses on the aspect of leave of absence policies. Noting that a health leave is a potentially useful mechanism enabling a student to focus on well being and recovery, “schools may also use the leave of absence as a tool for discrimination, pushing students out of school who are entitled by law to receive accommodations and supports which would enable them to stay.”

The report claims that college campuses are facing a unique crisis, arguing that the prevalence rates of mental illness among college students are far larger than prevalence rates for age-matched non-college individuals.

The Ruderman report says:

“Meanwhile, college resources provide woefully inadequate support to students. … The scope of the problem, combined with the lack of resources available to address the problem, is exerting a horrible toll. Suicide is among the most tragic consequences of untreated mental illness and it is the second leading cause of death of college students…”

“Clearly, colleges need to invest in increasing the availability of mental health professionals on campus. One clinician for every one thousand students is not enough, and this ratio represents the availability of clinicians on the campuses with the most resources.”

The report speculates that college administrators are wary of bad press coverage about campus suicides, and that their fear of a lawsuit if a student takes their own life motivates them to remove students from campus.

In the study, Ruderman cited “problematic” issues in seven of 15 categories related to Cornell’s leave of absence policy. It said there was “room for improvement” in two other issues, and that the university followed “best practice” in six others.

Here are the 15 categories and Cornell’s scores in them:

PUTTING A STUDENT ON LEAVE

1. Does the involuntary leave policy include “threat to self” language (with the premise that the inclusion of this language is facially discriminatory)?

The policy states, “…whether the student’s behavior is disruptive of the university’s learning environment and whether the behavior poses a direct threat to the safety of others…”

Grade: Best Practice

 
2. Do leave policies specify that the student is entitled to reasonable accommodations which would enable them to stay at school?

The policy states, “Consideration will also be given to accommodations that may reasonably be provided that will mitigate the need for the involuntary leave.” There is no mention of individualized assessment.

Grade: Ambiguous / Room for improvement

 
3. Do leave policies include language against generalization, fear, or stereotype?

There is no language against generalization, fear, or stereotype.

Grade: Problematic

 
4. Is there language about community disruption?

The policy states, “When there is an actual or the threat of a community disruption, Cornell University may place a student on an involuntary leave of absence.”

Grade: Problematic

 
5. Does the policy empower students to work with mental health professionals of their choice?

The student must get approval to take a leave and return from leave from Cornell Health (it can’t be an outside treatment provider). Also, a Cornell Health clinician or counselor will provide “…specific treatment recommendations as part of the HLOA agreement. Compliance with the treatment expectations is a primary factor in approving a student’s return to Cornell.”

Grade: Problematic

 
6. Can the student initiate the process at any time?

There are no health leaves of absence after the last day of classes.

Grade: Problematic

 
7. Are policies and procedures transparent?

All decisions regarding return from an HLOA are made by an interdisciplinary committee of Cornell Health clinicians. Student requests to return are denied only when the committee is unanimous in its opinion that a return is not advisable at this time. The return process checklist also provides transparency. Also, the involuntary leave policy states that involuntary leaves are imposed only “in extraordinary circumstances.”

Grade: Best practice

 
THE LEAVE ITSELF

8. Is there a minimum length of time for the leave?

The policy states, “The duration of the leave is to be determined by the vice president for student and campus life based on the facts and circumstances leading up to the imposition of the involuntary leave…For health leave, amount of time will depend on the circumstances.” The mental health provider report requests information, including “Once achieved, has the substantial reduction [in behaviors such as suicidal behaviors, self injury, food purging] been maintained stably for 3 consecutive months?” This may suggest that three months is the minimum duration.

Grade: Ambiguous / Room for improvement

 
9. Does the school specify a maximum duration or maximum number of leaves?

There is no language about maximum number or duration.

Grade: Best Practice

 
10. Does the policy identify a liaison or contact person at the school?

The policy does not identify a liaison or a contact person.

Grade: Problematic

 
11. Are students on leave prohibited from visiting campus?

The policy states, “The student may visit campus only as authorized in writing by the vice president for student and campus life.” The policy states, “Where appropriate, impose a persona non grata order on a student who has been placed on involuntary leave.”

Grade: Problematic

 
12. Are there work or school requirements?

The policy states, “It is expected that the student uses the time away from the University for treatment and recovery.” The policy states, “Until the student complies with the pre-requisites to enrollment mandated by the vice president for student and campus life. An individualized assessment will be made for the student to determine if the pre-requisites have been satisfied.”

Grade: Best practice

 
RETURNING FROM LEAVE

13. What is the deadline to apply for return?

The student must notify Cornell Health in writing of their wish to return by June 1 for a Fall return and November 1 for a Spring return. Submit documentation by July 1 for fall semester return, by December 1 for spring semester return. The score is based on the documentation deadlines.

Grade: Best Practice

 
14. Does the policy mention confidentiality, and facilitate confidentiality by specifying that medical records should be submitted to health services, not school administration?

Voluntary leave policy states – “December 22, 2017: Added note at end of procedures indicating that requests for health-care related leaves should be referred to Cornell Health to initiate the HLOA [Health Leave of Absence] process, and that academic units should not request health information or medical records directly from a student.” There is no explicit mention of confidentiality.

Grade: Ambiguous / Room for improvement

 
15. Does the policy facilitate student participation in university housing?

The policy does not mention housing.

Grade: Problematic

 
The rating system allotted a score of 1 if problematic, 2 if there was room for improvement, and 3 for best practice.

The Ivy League ratings:

Brown University: 29/45 D

Columbia University: 29/45 D

Cornell University: 28/45 D-

Dartmouth: 23/45 F

Harvard University: 28/45 D-

Princeton University: 29/45 D

University of Pennsylvania: 31/35 D+

Yale University: 24/45 F

A report on Cornell student mental health by the JED Campus program published in April included recommendations on health leave of absences:

“Develop/refine a written medical leave of absence policy that is consistent with JED Campus recommendations.”

“Ensure that all leave policies are transparent and easily accessible to the campus community.”

Cornell responded saying:

“Cornell Health continues to work with all of the academic units at Cornell to make the health leave process as straight forward as possible.

“The university’s Voluntary Leave policy was recently revised in December 2017 to address identified issues.”

In 2017, The Sophie Fund, an Ithaca nonprofit organization advocating for youth mental heath, released a proposal aimed at supporting students taking leaves of absence for mental health reasons from Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

The proposal calls for an Ithaca community-based program featuring a “leave of absence coach,” a community outreach worker providing practical guidance and moral support for students in transition. It also proposes a website hosting useful information about college leave policies, strategies for fruitful time off from school, local housing options, and employment opportunities. To date, no tangible progress has been made in funding or implementing the proposal.

“Leaves of absence entail an often unexpected, abrupt, and painful loss of a structured environment that includes a support network of friends, professors, university staff, roommates and other fellow students, campus organizations, cultural and athletic facilities, and school medical providers,” the proposal says. “Testimonies from students on mental health leaves of absence relate how it can be a confidence-crushing experience that induces shame and guilt.”

Click here to download a copy of the proposal.

In April 2017 and again in August 2018, The Sophie Fund’s founders, Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, called on Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack to launch an independent external-led review of student mental health. They said the review should include “Cornell’s policies, programs, and practices for students taking HLOA for mental health reasons.”

In a September 18 email to Cornell students reported by the Cornell Daily Sun, Vice President Ryan Lombardi announced plans for “a comprehensive review of student mental health” that will bring together “internal and external partners.”

In a September 18 email to the Sun, Lombardi said: “While for many years the university has engaged in regular assessment of student mental health needs and evaluation of services and programs, the decision to pursue an additional comprehensive review of student mental health reflects the University’s commitment to promoting health and well-being as a foundation for academic and personal success.”

Cornell Task Force Demands “Gold Standard” for Student Mental Health

The student-run Cornell Mental Health Task Force has issued a set of recommendations for immediate steps to improve the campus climate and services for mental health, and called on the university administration to ensure that an upcoming comprehensive review of student mental health is “independent, thorough, and transparent,” and involves “full student participation.”

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Statue of Ezra Cornell in the Arts Quad

The recommendations addressed to the Cornell administration proposed three immediate initiatives to be carried out in two phases, covering improvements in student mental health services, mental health education and collaboration within the Cornell community, and academic policies and practices that impact student mental health.

The task force also called for the creation of “an official Standing Committee on Mental Health,” comprised of task force members and other students, “tasked with overseeing ongoing implementation of best practices for student mental health, reviews, and serving as a liaison between students and their needs and the administration.”

The task force, co-chaired by Matthew Jirsa ’19 and Joanna Hua ’20 and consisting of more than 20 students, issued the recommendations earlier this week after a six-month study and following an October 19 public forum where draft recommendations were presented and discussed.

Specific recommendations of the task force included:

Hiring more psychological counselors to accommodate rising numbers of students seeking services; reducing wait times for counseling appointments; requiring counselors to undergo diversity training; improving access to off-campus psychological services; requiring mandatory suicide prevention training for Resident Advisors; requiring mandatory mental health training and an accountability system for faculty; introducing a standardized grading system to reduce academic stress; creating a student mental health advocate; providing support to students at every stage of the process for taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons.

In its letter, the task force said it sought to collaborate with the administration “to mutually work towards profound change, with the ultimate end of making Cornell a standout institution where mental health is holistically and completely championed, academically, clinically, and culturally.”

The task force applauded recent announcements by President Martha E. Pollack and Vice President Ryan Lombardi that the administration intends to launch a “comprehensive” review of student mental health. The task force added: “We call on the administration to ensure that this review is independent, thorough, and transparent, includes full student participation, and strives to become a ‘gold standard’ for addressing mental health on the college level to which other universities can look for guidance.”

The task force commended many aspects of Cornell’s current mental health efforts, noting the hiring of additional Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) counselors, the recent formation of a broad-based campus Coalition on Mental Health, and ongoing support for peer-to-peer programs aimed at reducing stress. “These measures are a fantastic start, but with high wait times [for CAPS appointments] and recent incidents of suicide attempts, we are far from where we need to be,” the task force said.

The task force said that Cornell’s “Ivy-League culture of hyper-competition and ‘stress Olympics’ is centered in the middle of a rural health system—a situation that creates a high demand for mental health services despite rural issues of lower mental health professional supply.” It cited Cornell Pulse data indicating that four of 10 undergraduates surveyed were “unable to function academically for at least a week in the past year due to depression, stress, or anxiety” and that 12 percent of surveyed Cornell students had seriously considered suicide within the past year.

A summary of the Cornell Mental Health Task Force key recommendations:

Mental Health Services

—Develop a system of intaking students that is more efficient, shortening wait times and improving access while also ensuring quality of care.

—Pledge to hire new counselors in the event that the number of students seeking CAPS services continues to rise in the coming semesters/years.

—Seek input from the student body concerning whether or not the current counselors are diverse and adequately understand a broad range of mental health concerns.

—Require all counselors to obtain a baseline of diversity training in order to accommodate for the diversity and intersectionality of mental health concerns.

—Share estimated wait times for appointments with counselors on the Cornell Health website for transparency.

—Create a mechanism for anonymous referrals of persons in distress to mental health resources before extreme actions such as calling the police.

—Establish a clear and straightforward method for switching counselors within Cornell Health if requested.

—Create of a page on the Cornell Health website that addresses considerations that are made when matching patients with counselors, clearly outlines the process for switching to a new counselor, and lists resources for students who are unhappy with their care (i.e. patient advocates).

—Allow students to state their counselor preferences (demographic, personality type, etc.) during the 15-minute phone screening and accommodate their requests.

—Create an anonymous outlet for students to voice complaints about their counselor to be utilized in counselor training.

—Enable students to change counselors by speaking with a receptionist or patient advocate, or by sending an email to their counselor.

—Create an Off-Campus Therapy Referral Network to sustain relationships with therapists in the Ithaca community.

—Provide an easily accessible list of off-campus therapists accepting Cornell students and accepting the Student Health Plan including those willing to offer prorated/discounted prices.

 

Mental Health Education and Collaboration

—Create a mental health program for Residential Advisors covering mental illnesses and substance abuse and including mandatory QPR suicide prevention training.

—Provide basic mental health information and learning to incoming freshmen while underscoring support from various communities at Cornell.

—Create a Standing Committee on Mental Health that helps implement initiatives and objectives, and serves as a liaison between students and administrators about mental health services and concerns.

—Establish mental health training for all faculty and staff members, and advisors/administrators, including concise mandatory manuals and training programs.

—Establish a system of accountability for professors to be more cognizant and understanding of mental health issues among students.

 

Academic Policies and Mental Health

—Appointment of a Mental Health Advocate who can represent students in academic settings where mental health is a factor in academic success or stress.

—Present students with their rights and when necessary have the Mental Health Advocate serve as a facilitator between students and professors.

—Ensure that professors understand mental health complexities and accommodate students as needed.

—Implement a standardized and transparent grading scheme as a method of course stress reduction.

—Provide housing aid to students taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons who don’t have supportive households to return to.

—Provide a system of support and contact for students at every stage of the leave of absence process.

Cornell President Promises Holistic Review of Student Mental Health

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack says that Cornell will be conducting a “comprehensive review” of student mental health, possibly beginning in early 2019. She says the “team” at Cornell Health had advocated for the review “to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus.”

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Cornell University campus

Pollack’s statement came in a letter dated September 20 to Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, the co-founders of The Sophie Fund. In a letter dated August 23, they had called on Pollack to “appoint without further delay an independent, external-led task force to review and assess the mental health challenges for Cornell students, and the university’s policies, practices, and programs to address them; and to make recommendations to the Cornell President to ensure that the university is implementing current best practices.”

MacLeod and Hack published their letter to Pollack in a blog post on September 8 headlined, “Time for a Mental Health Task Force at Cornell.”

In her reply to the MacLeod/Hack letter, Pollack said: “We will be conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell… The team at Cornell Health—those in both clinical and educational roles—have advocated for this review to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus.”

Pollack said that Cornell Health “will work with the campus community” beginning this semester “to determine the appropriate scope for this review, which could potentially begin in early 2019.”

Pollack thanked MacLeod and Hack “for your advocacy for providing the best possible environment to support the mental health of Cornell students.”

Pollack’s letter did not respond directly to MacLeod/Hack’s request for an “independent, external-led” review. In their letter, they wrote: “The independent task force should be led by a recognized public health expert with a strong background in mental health and without any current or previous ties to Cornell or to organizations and professional associations focused on collegiate mental health.”

In a September 18 email to Cornell students reported by the Cornell Daily Sun, Vice President Ryan Lombardi announced plans for “a comprehensive review of student mental health” that will bring together “internal and external partners.”

In a September 18 email to the Sun, Lombardi said: “While for many years the university has engaged in regular assessment of student mental health needs and evaluation of services and programs, the decision to pursue an additional comprehensive review of student mental health reflects the University’s commitment to promoting health and well-being as a foundation for academic and personal success.”

In a statement to the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) on September 24 reported by the Sun, Lombardi said he “can’t speak … to exactly who” will be conducting the review but that the administration does “envision it being external audiences.”

“I think part of the first step is to understand what we want to look at, and then I think that will really inform that broader question about who’s best to come in,” he said. “Obviously I think we’re going to want people to have expertise in mental health. I don’t want that just to be Cornell folks.”

In her letter to MacLeod and Hack, Pollack noted that the intention to conduct a comprehensive review was cited in an update about “diversity and inclusion” initiatives posted on the Office of the President’s website, apparently in early September, and announced in Lombardi’s email to students on September 18. The reference read as follows:

Conduct a comprehensive review of student mental health.

Cornell Health will work with the campus community during the fall 2018 semester to determine the appropriate scope for a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell, anticipating that such a review could potentially begin in early 2019.

MacLeod and Hack, whose daughter Sophie (’14) died by suicide while on a health leave of absence in 2016, initially wrote to Pollack on April 19, 2017 detailing their concerns about “systemic failure” in Cornell’s institutional handling of mental health matters, and calling on her to launch an independent task force review. However, in a letter to MacLeod and Hack on January 11, 2018, Pollack declined their request, citing an “external assessment” conducted by The JED Foundation, JED’s on-site visit to the Cornell campus in the summer of 2017, and Cornell’s “ongoing engagement with the foundation to ensure we are providing holistic support.”

MacLeod and Hack said that they wrote to Pollack in August asking her to reverse her decision after studying the JED review and finding it “plainly insufficient.” They said a glaring omission was the lack of any reference in findings or recommendations regarding the capacity of the Counseling and Psychological Services staff to meet the demands of students for services. Another omission, they said, was the lack of any reference to the capacity of community mental health providers to address the needs of Cornell students referred to those off-campus services by CAPS. They said that the JED-review documents reported no findings and recommendations in areas such as academic workloads and faculty and academic staff handling of students in distress, and appeared to lack a comprehensive assessment of Cornell’s suicide prevention policies and practices.

MacLeod and Hack also questioned the independence of the review, pointing out that institutions of higher education pay The JED Foundation a fee to become what JED calls “partners” in the JED Campus program. They also said that the JED review entailed only one on-site campus visit by a JED External Contributor, one that lasted merely three hours and did not include meetings with any of the community providers who receive many CAPS referrals. They also said it appeared that Cornell had not released all relevant documents pertaining to the JED review.

In response to Pollack’s September 20 letter, MacLeod and Hack said in a statement:

“We welcome President Pollack’s personal engagement and specifically her commitment to conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell. We commend Cornell Health for advocating for this review “to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus,” as President Pollack said. Lastly, we are encouraged to know that the Cornell administration will consult with students and other members of the community as the review proceeds.

“There is a mounting mental health crisis facing our young people today, and the goal of the comprehensive review should be not merely to tinker with the existing system but to create a gold standard for supporting student mental health in the years to come. As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Cornell should expect no less of itself.

“We continue to stress the importance of a truly independent, robust, and transparent review, led by an external expert—a recognized public health authority with a strong background in mental health and without any current or previous ties to Cornell. This is vital, both to ensure the best possible outcome and to win the confidence of Cornell students and the wider campus and Ithaca communities that the university administration is doing its utmost to support student mental health.”

The full September 20, 2018 letter from President Pollack:

Dear Ms. Hack and Mr. MacLeod,

Thank you for your letter dated august 23, 2018, and for your care and concern for the mental health and well-being of Cornell students.

As you may have seen in our recently announced diversity and inclusion initiatives (https://president.cornell.edu/diversity-and-inclusion-initiatives/), we will be conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell. Beginning this semester, Cornell Health will work with the campus community to determine the appropriate scope for this review, which could potentially begin in early 2019. Vice president Lombardi also shared this news with our students in a message sent on September 18, along with other updates and investments in mental health support services.

The team at Cornell Health—those in both clinical and educational roles—have advocated for this review to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus. We also continue to engage with and support mental health resources in the larger community.

Thank you again for reaching out to me and for your advocacy for providing the best possible environment to support the mental health of Cornell students.

Sincerely,

Martha E. Pollack

Time for a Mental Health Task Force at Cornell

We have written a letter to President Martha E. Pollack stating that the recent review of Cornell University’s mental health practices by The Jed Foundation is “plainly insufficient” and calling on her to appoint an external-led task force to perform an “independent, transparent, and robust review.”

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Statue of Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, in the Arts Quad

Our daughter, Sophie Hack MacLeod ’14, died by suicide at age 23 in Ithaca while on a Health Leave of Absence from Cornell, where she was enrolled in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. In setting up The Sophie Fund in her memory to advocate for mental health initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca community, we became very concerned about the mental health policies, programs, and practices for supporting Cornell students.

We initially wrote to President Pollack on April 19, 2017, just after she assumed office as Cornell’s 14th president, detailing our concerns about “systemic failure” in Cornell’s institutional handling of mental health matters, and called on her to establish an independent task force to report on Cornell’s mental health policies, practices, and programs and to make recommendations on needed improvements.

In a January 11, 2018 email to us, President Pollack declined our request. She cited an “external assessment” conducted by The JED Foundation, JED’s on-site visit to the Cornell campus in the summer of 2017, and Cornell’s “ongoing engagement with the foundation to ensure we are providing holistic support.” She also cited the JED review in subsequent remarks to Cornell’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) and the Cornell Daily Sun.

In a letter last month, dated August 23, we informed President Pollack that we have examined what Cornell has made public about JED’s “external assessment” and concluded that it is plainly insufficient. It is not the independent, transparent, and robust review that we sought and that we believe Cornell’s students deserve. And it does not adequately address many of the concerns we raised in our original 2017 letter—about practical issues such as campus and off-campus mental health services and the high incidence of sexual assault and hazing misconduct, as well as policy concerns such as a defensive mindset that appears to prioritize Cornell’s public image over the welfare of students struggling with mental disorders.

We pointed out that, despite her promise to release the JED report, to date Cornell has chosen to publish—on the Cornell Health website—only two documents related to the review.

A glaring and troubling omission in the two posted documents is any reference in findings or recommendations regarding the capacity of the Counseling and Psychological Services staff to meet the demands of students for services. Another omission is any reference to the capacity of community mental health providers to address the needs of Cornell students referred to those off-campus services by CAPS. The documents report no findings and make no recommendations in areas such as academic workloads and faculty and academic staff handling of students in distress.

We explained to President Pollack that it does not appear that the JED review included a comprehensive assessment of Cornell’s suicide prevention policies and practices. However, we commended Cornell Health Executive Director Kent Bullis for recently announcing provisional support for the Zero Suicide Model initiative within the framework of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

As we wrote in our letter to President Pollack, we do not believe that the JED review can be considered an independent external assessment because institutions of higher education pay The JED Foundation a $22,000 fee to become what JED calls “partners” in the JED Campus program. Furthermore, the director of Cornell’s Counseling and Psychological Services has a longstanding professional relationship with JED and is a member of its Advisory Board. The JED External Contributor who conducted JED’s on-site visit to the Cornell campus is a professional colleague of the CAPS director.

Neither of the two posted documents contain any JED findings; rather, in the first document JED merely makes brief comments on Cornell’s self-reported survey responses, and in the second document JED makes recommendations without reference to any findings they are presumably based on.

We understand that the review entailed only one on-site campus visit by a JED External Contributor, and the visit lasted merely three hours. We also understand that the External Contributor’s visit did not include meetings with any of the community providers who receive many CAPS referrals.

According to the JED Campus program, its partnerships with participating colleges’ mental health programs include the following five elements, which Cornell has not released: a Strategic Plan “complete with detailed objectives and action steps for implementation”; a Fourth-Year Post-Assessment “evaluating systems change”; a Healthy Minds Study, which JED describes as “an in-depth assessment of students’ attitudes, behaviors and awareness of mental health issues”; a Feedback Report on the JED Campus and Healthy Minds Study findings; and a Summary Report containing data analysis for the JED Campus assessment and the Healthy Minds Study. JED declined to release its Cornell report to us, citing a confidentiality agreement with Cornell.

We believe that the JED review is clearly inadequate for a comprehensive assessment of the serious mental health challenges faced by a large university campus today, especially one located in a small upstate community. As we reminded President Pollack, the 2017 Cornell PULSE Survey of 5,001 undergraduates reported that 71.6 percent of respondents often or very often felt “overwhelmed,” and 42.9 percent said that they had been unable to function academically for at least a week on one or more occasions due to depression, stress, or anxiety. Nearly 10 percent of respondents reported being unable to function during a week-long period on five or more occasions. Nine percent of the respondents—about 450 students—reported “having seriously considered suicide at least once during the last year,” and about 85 students reported having actually attempted suicide at least once in the last year.

We have often heard the view that Cornell’s mental health policies are better than those of many universities, and that Cornell’s mental health statistics are no worse. We find such a complacent view to be surprising and disappointing, especially coming from a world-renowned research institution. In fact, these escalating mental health challenges require a relentless approach in response from everyone in a position to act. We truly hope that President Pollack—and Cornell—will lead the way.

—By Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack

Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack are the co-founders of The Sophie Fund, a nonprofit organization advocating mental health initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca community. The organization is named in memory of their daughter Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell fine arts student who took her own life in Ithaca in 2016.

UPDATE 9/7/18:

Lee Swain, director of JED Campus, sent the following comment to The Sophie Fund:

I do see one inaccuracy I’d like to correct related to this paragraph:

“According to the JED Campus program, its partnerships with participating colleges’ mental health programs include the following five elements, which Cornell has not released: a Strategic Plan “complete with detailed objectives and action steps for implementation”; a Fourth-Year Post-Assessment “evaluating systems change”; a Healthy Minds Study, which JED describes as “an in-depth assessment of students’ attitudes, behaviors and awareness of mental health issues”; a Feedback Report on the JED Campus and Healthy Minds Study findings; and a Summary Report containing data analysis for the JED Campus assessment and the Healthy Minds Study. JED declined to release its Cornell report to us, citing a confidentiality agreement with Cornell.”

The elements you describe are part of our current program. I believe Erica explained to you how the program has changed. When Cornell joined, the program was designed slightly differently than is currently described on our website. For instance, we did not have a partnership with or include the Healthy Minds Study at that time. So, Cornell did not participate in that data collection. Also, Cornell is not completely through the four year program yet, which is why they have not posted or shared the “fourth year post assessment” as it has not yet been completed. It should also be noted that because Cornell joined an earlier version of the program than what is described on the website, they also only paid $1,950, the cost of the program at that time, not the $22,000 that schools currently pay which includes the Healthy Minds Study, a day long visit (sometimes a bit more) and policy and protocol review (both at the beginning of the program and throughout as policies are changed/adapted). We also collect more data on counseling center utilization, crisis incidents, and staffing patterns in the current version of the program than in the original version.

Cornell’s Hazing Problem Redux

George Desdunes, son of a single-mom Haitian immigrant, joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at Cornell University in part because he thought fraternity connections would help him find a good job after graduation. He never made it to that proud day. In the early hours of Friday February 25, 2011, the 19-year-old sophomore died in a hazing incident at SAE’s house on McGraw Place.

Kidnapped, blindfolded, wrists and ankles bound with duct tape, Desdunes drank a shot of vodka for every incorrect answer to a trivia question until he passed out. Fraternity pledges hoisted him onto a leather sofa, where custodians found him motionless a few hours later and called 911. Marie Andre wailed when she saw the corpse of her son in the morgue.

When President Martha E. Pollack announced frat-house reforms last week, it was but the latest effort by successive Cornell administrations since the senseless death of George Desdunes to put an end to the hazing scourge that, as Pollack puts it, “threatens the health and safety of our students and casts a shadow over our community of scholars.” Pollack set ambitious goals for her administration: not only to “eradicate hazing,” but to “present an example for other universities to follow.”

It remains to be seen if Pollack’s announced changes—banning hard liquor, stiffer penalties for hazing violations, mandatory educational programs, tighter house supervision—will have any greater impact than the ballyhooed initiative “to end pledging as we know it” put forth in 2011 by David J. Skorton, who was Cornell’s president at the time of the tragedy on McGraw Place.

An illustrious Cornell figure, Skorton, a cardiologist, is currently head of the Smithsonian Institution; his name and words are engraved in stone on an edifice on the Ithaca campus—the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives (“Bring your strength and spirit and heart to develop a caring community everywhere there is the name Cornell”). Yet Skorton’s own ambitious effort to stamp out hazing—which he heralded in a forceful Op-Ed in the New York Times—seems to have been a total failure. By Cornell’s own reckoning, at least 28 of the university’s fraternities—nearly half of them—have been sanctioned for hazing since Desdunes’s death.

Cornell disbanded the SAE chapter for a minimum five-year period after George Desdunes died. A judge found the fraternity guilty on state hazing charges and imposed a $12,000 fine. Three SAE pledges were acquitted of hazing charges. Desdunes’s mother brought a $25 million wrongful death suit against the national fraternity, and eventually reached a multi-million dollar out of court settlement.

Pollack’s initiative, which omitted any reference to Skorton’s “comprehensive strategy,” appears to be driven by another spate of cases and allegations this academic year—her first full year at Cornell—including the three-year suspension on hazing charges of the Gamma Theta chapter of Sigma Nu fraternity last Friday as Pollack was making her announcement in an email to the Cornell community. The hazing allegations against Sigma Nu cited by the Cornell Daily Sun included phrases like “I want this to stop,” and “makes me want to kill myself.”

A Cornell hazing incident made national headlines in February when the university’s Zeta Beta Tau was put on probation over a fat-shaming contest. Called the “pig roast,” new fraternity brothers were awarded points for having sex with overweight women.

Pollack announced changes to be enacted in four phases.

Effective immediately:

—Substantiated acts of hazing will result in a chapter’s suspension and loss of recognition. A minimum of three years will be applied for those cases that include coerced alcohol or other drug consumption, sexual and related misconduct, or other forms of violence or mentally abusive behavior that poses a threat to health “and safety…

—Hard alcohol (more than 30 percent alcohol by volume) is not permitted in a residential chapter house at any time.

Effective Fall Semester 2018:

—Each Greek letter chapter must submit a new member education plan prior to participating in new member recruitment. Chapter leadership will assume accountability for adhering to the approved plan.

—Prospective and current members must participate in mandatory educational programming (including, but not limited to, university expectations, hazing awareness, and policies on alcohol, drug use, and sexual and related misconduct) in order to be eligible to participate in the new-member recruitment and intake processes.

—A systemwide, online scorecard will be published and updated annually to include, among other things, the full judicial history of each chapter. This website will be publicized to the campus community and to the parents of all students.

—A comprehensive review of event management guidelines will be conducted and submitted for my approval. The review will include, but not be limited to, the training required for sober monitors, the use of independent bystander intervention services, the distribution of beer and wine for large events, and the number of large events permitted.

Effective Spring Semester 2019:

—Leadership positions in residential Greek letter organizations must be held by junior or senior students who reside in the chapter house.

—A comprehensive review of the Chapter Review Board process that governs recognition for fraternities and sororities will be conducted and submitted for my approval. The review will include, but not be limited to, structure, procedures, process, membership and community expectations.

Effective Fall Semester 2021:

—All residential fraternities and sororities must have a full-time, live-in adviser with clearly stated objectives and expectations for the role.

Said Pollack:

“The behavior in question goes well beyond innocent fun. It includes extremely coercive, demeaning, sexually inappropriate and physically dangerous activities that jeopardize students’ health and lives. The danger of such reckless actions cannot be ignored. Such activities are not tolerated in society and must stop in our Greek letter organizations… I do not take these steps lightly.”

Six and a half years ago, Skorton expressed similar determination in his Times Op-Ed:

“This tragedy convinced me that it was time—long past time—to remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing, Yesterday, I directed student leaders of Cornell’s Greek chapters to develop a system of member recruitment and initiation that does not involve ‘pledging’—the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership. While fraternity and sorority chapters will be invited to suggest alternatives for inducting new members, I will not approve proposals that directly or indirectly encourage hazing and other risky behavior. National fraternities and sororities should end pledging across all campuses; Cornell students can help lead the way.”

In a November 28, 2012 memo titled “Plan to Meet President Skorton’s Challenge ‘To End Pledging as We Know It,’” Susan Murphy, vice president for Student and Academic Services, announced that Shorton had approved a “comprehensive strategy” for eradicating hazing.

Based on the recommendations of a special task force, the Fraternity and Sorority Advisory Council, and university administrators, staff, and alumni, the comprehensive strategy, as outlined by the Cornell Chronicle, included the following phases:

Effective immediately, fraternities and sororities must:

—Remove the “power differential” between members and initiates, which often leads to coercive behavior, and construct a model that treats all members, prospective or current, as equals;

—Transition from a pledge model to a membership development model that focuses on the organization’s core principles and extends through graduation;

—Secure approval for orientation events, by Cornell and such partners as the national organization, before they occur;

—Shorten new membership orientation to six weeks in 2012-13 and to four weeks thereafter;

—Communicate transparently, including online postings, about all infractions;

—Increase alumni involvement.

Effective Spring Semester 2013:

—The start of formal decision-making about live-in advisers in chapter houses and other issues.

Effective Fall Semester 2014:

—Training will be coordinated and standardized for live-in, chapter and alumni advisers, and consistent academic standards will be established for the Greek system.

“I applaud the work of students, staff and alumni to design a new membership approach for the Greek community,” Skorton said afterwards. “It is clear that progress has been made through this collaborative process. It is equally clear that we are not yet where we need to be.”

The Greek community is the heart of much of the social life at Cornell. About one-third of the university’s 15,000 undergraduates belong to one of 64 recognized fraternities and sororities. Neither Pollack nor Skorton proposed an indefinite alcohol ban on the Greek system—though most undergrads and virtually all pledges are under the New York State drinking age of 21—and both vigorously defended fraternities as part of a proud Cornell tradition.

“Greek letter organizations have a long history at Cornell University and have been a prominent feature of the undergraduate experience since 1868,” said Pollack last week. “The Greek system is part of our university’s history and culture, and we should maintain it because at its best, it can foster friendship, community service and leadership,” said Skorton in 2011.

In its editorial after Pollack’s announcement last week, the Cornell Daily Sun called the new changes “a good first step” but voiced skepticism about their ultimate effectiveness. The Sun said many of the ideas had been tried before, and speculated that Pollack’s alcohol ban would be unenforceable or ignored. “We have a new president, but a very old university, and old habits have an old habit of dying hard,” the Sun said.