NOAA offers a pithy description of the earth’s tectonic plates as shifting landscapes that make up the earth’s crust. 250 million years ago, the earth was one mass called Pangaea with one ocean, Panthalassa. Heat broke it all apart. Now, the plates shift at the annual rate of toenail growth (I know, gross, right?), but sometimes, as in California, they move at a rate four times faster than the rest of the planet. “At the “seams” where tectonic plates come in contact, the crustal rocks may grind violently against each other, causing earthquakes and volcano eruptions.”
That is a great description of what is happening on the higher education landscape these days. We don’t have to look back millions of years for the origins, of course. Let’s just go back to pre-World War II when the overwhelming majority of college students and professors were wealthy white Christian men who engaged in athletics, drank too much in fraternal organizations, and sought sexual companionship in secret until they finally married a “proper girl” and went to law or medical school or followed in their father’s footsteps. (Pardon the hyperbolic stereotyping!)
Then everything started falling apart when the sociopolitical order of our world shifted during World War II. Since the 1940’s, colleges and universities have been incentivized to diversify the student population, first via the GI bill, and then through other state and federal funding. Since then, students have been complaining that colleges don’t offer a sense of community – because they can’t. It is, thank God, no longer one community of white Christian men, but a gathering of many individuals, each of whom is trying to figure out where they belong, not only on campus, but in the world. (That’s why I think colleges need to focus on teaching students how to build their own communities.)
Meanwhile, colleges ramped up their administration to deal with increased numbers of applications and students on financial aid.
Student development and activities personnel were hired to organize programs and initiatives for the many student needs.
High-ranking staff joined the rolls to diversify the professoriate.
General counsel offices were staffed up to anticipate liabilities and defend the institution against all manner of threats.
Highly trained Title IX deputies came along to handle the up-until-now sub rosa sexual assault that has run rampant on campuses since the very beginning.
Academic and career advising became a global profession to offer students and their parents sounding boards so that they make the right choices for themselves, their families, and their communities.
Mental and physical health is no longer dealt with by the family physician. Campuses employ scads of mental and physical health specialists to treat the ever-increasing numbers of students who pursue a diploma while dealing with minor and major issues.
Colleges can’t hire disabilities specialists fast enough to ensure campuses accommodate differently abled students.
It goes on and on.
Then Trump arrives and the tectonic plates start shifting more at the rate of California’s.
Trumpists are thrusting into relief the fact that most colleges are woefully lacking in diversity of political opinions and openly hostile to right-leaning colleagues. Colleges are getting their comeuppance now.
Monies from the NEA, NEH, Americorps and others are being threatened. Development offices are desperately trying to hire people who can raise money from within a profession that is notoriously transient. Those fundraisers are putting every more pressure on alumni to keep institutions afloat.
Since the infamous Executive Order on immigration, the finance and enrollment management teams are scrambling to figure out how to deal with the inevitably lower number of international students who will join us in the fall. They were the reliable cash cows of many institutions, since almost all of them paid full freight. Yup, they were plunking down $40-70K a year in our colleges and countless more in our college towns.
Trump will deregulate for-profit colleges where students underperform, graduate at lower rates than ever before, and leave with crushing debt and without the much-coveted diploma.
In an effort to protect the individuals accused of sexual assault, advances for the victims will be rolled back.
Activists will continue to roil college campuses, but to what end? Rallies and marches and all of the concomitant screaming and chanting aren’t going to get us anywhere. It may make people feel good to walk in groups with pink hats on, but the Trumpists are laughing all the way to their dungeons of evil.
If they have their way, higher education’s landscape will be one big Pangaea again where the wealthy white Christian males will get a degree and move off to a certain future. For the rest of us, the future is much less certain.
Campus Mental Health and Community: What colleges need to focus on is teaching students how to create their own communities
Campuses across the country are trying to figure out how to meet the demands of an ever-growing mental health crisis. They are also scrambling and putting heaps of money into creating that ever-elusive “sense of community.” Students and parents are screaming about both. Professors blame administrators. Administrators are desperate to find solutions, reasoning that a true sense of belonging on campus will equate to better mental health.
Why is this so hard? For one, we are caught in the crossfire of many obvious socio-cultural trends:
But I think the conversation is lacking some key components.
First, when we think of “college community,” we all conjure up images of young people flocking to football games donning school colors and cheering on their much-beloved team. Or students streaming down the street to go to a frat party, an eating club, or a final club to drink, laugh, and have barrels of fun. These are the “good old days” of true college community, right?
Except they weren’t. Football and fraternity cultures were dominated by white Christian males and were seething hotbeds of misogyny, racism, sexual assault, binge-drinking, and drugging. They perpetuate everything colleges and even the government now are trying to stem. Those can’t be the types of “community” we are trying to replicate, right?
Also, our campuses, thank goodness, are now filled with students of every race, creed, color, heritage, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic and educational “class.” They are all trying to forge their unique path on the planet. How could all of those people be joined by any one sense of community? I don’t believe they can.
What colleges need to focus on is teaching students how to create their own communities as a way of realizing a more socially just planet. Professors, administrators, and peers can’t really create them for them. We can’t possibly anticipate their individual needs and desires, which are changing all the time.
So, why don’t they do it themselves? They haven’t learned how. Unless they have been active members of a team or theater troupe of some sort, the only communities they have focused on helping create so far are digital communities.
Isn’t it ironic that some of the students complaining most loudly about a lack of community have over 1,000 friends on Facebook and as many followers on Twitter and Instagram?
What colleges owe is to students is to teach them how to define for themselves the values they hold and the kinds of communities they want to belong to and then offer ways for them to learn how to create them for themselves and how to move from one community to another within and outside of their campus, IRL. Not only will that make for a more gratifying college experience and perhaps less loneliness, isolation, and depression, but the skills they learn in doing it for themselves will serve them brilliantly throughout their adult lives.
On every campus I visit, students cite a lack of a “community” as one of the main reasons for their depression, alienation, disaffection, lack of participation, isolation, and suicidal ideation. As the complaints grow over time, so do the rates of depression and the number of suicide attempts.
A study from over a decade ago echoes the same things college administrators hear in meetings practically daily. A college student’s sense of community is closely tied to their “feeling of being cared for, treated in a caring way, valued as an individual and accepted as part of community. The most negative influence on community comes from students’ feelings of loneliness on campus. In order for students to have a sense of campus community, student affairs administrators should strive to build a community that (1) has an open environment where free expressions are encouraged and individuality is accepted and respected, (2) engages faculty and students in teaching and learning, (3) provides an active social and learning environment in residence halls, (4) fosters positive relationships among ethnic and cultural groups through programs and student activities, (5) celebrates traditions and heritage of the institution, and (6) provides assistance to students when they feel lonely or depressed.”[i]
How do we explain the loneliness? Every college I know is replete with faculty and administrators who care, who strives to provide an open environment where faculty and students are engaged in teaching and learning. All of them have active social and learning environments in the dorms and have countless initiatives that encourage cross-cultural understanding. Each has their own traditions and history along with a campus counseling center that is busting at the seams.
College campuses provide all sorts of communities. Multi-cultural spaces, international centers, LGBTQA groups, Malcolm X lounges. You name it, they have it. Then, for the more mainstream, they offer fraternities, sororities, eating clubs, final clubs, all places where drinking and drugging and community engagement ebb and flow over the course of the semester.
Knowing how much of their resources and personnel are engaged in helping students find a sense of community on campus, I have been gobsmacked by the number of students who complain year after year about finding no sense of community whatsoever on their campus.
What’s really going on here?
Hard-working, well-meaning administrators and faculty are trying to create a “sense of community” on campuses for students who have had play arranged by phone and text by parents, not themselves. For students who have been given trophies whether they won or lost. Who have been granted A’s or 4’s or whatever the highest grade is whether their work deserved it or not. Who have been accommodated not just for over-diagnosed disabilities but also for suspicions of allergies and sensitivities to dust, air, and breezes. Who have been denied gluten, white sugar, white flour, and preservatives. Who have been medicated and nurtured as if we are growing a master race of some sort.
When they go to the playground, thick mats of rubber protect their delicate knees from being skinned.
When they ride tricycles, they have seatbelts and helmets.
When they go to after-school activities, they are driven and chaperoned and coached to death.
When they feel slighted, their parents say they’ve been bullied.
When they feel disparaged, their parents raise complaints of discrimination.
When they feel bad because their score wasn’t as high as the next student’s, they got a trophy anyway.
When they are teased, parents fight it out in the principal’s office.
Then, when they go to college, they have to go it on their own. Find friends. Fight their own battles. Establish a community. How? They haven’t had the opportunity to become resourceful and resilient and elastic. Their egos are fragile, not having been toughened by knocks and blows.
Of course, they don’t know how to find community.
It has become the responsibility of the college to find it for them. If I hear one more college administrator say that they create programs for students so that they feel and see their community around them, but students don’t show up, I’m going to scream.
Students – when you go to college, dare to check out a number of the dozens if not hundreds of student organizations that are on offer; try out for plays, choruses, orchestras, varsity or club teams; or interview for positions as tutors or peer mentors on anything from academics to sexual health to outdoor sports to study abroad. Promise yourself you will try three or four things and then go talk to an advisor or a parent or relative about how it went. If none of them has worked out, try three or four more.
A college does not have ONE community. It is a constellation of many.
Perhaps we are just nostalgic for the “good old days” when colleges were indeed ONE community – of white Protestant men from upper-class families. That no longer exists, thank God. Let’s celebrate the many different types of community on offer at every college and thank the people who work so hard to create programs and initiatives that welcome you. You might be surprised what you will find there.
Since Trump issued the executive order on February 27 banning travel from 7 majority-Muslim countries, no one on college campuses has gotten much sleep.
Presidents, provosts, general counsel, academic and student affairs folks have grappled with interpreting the executive order and spent countless hours composing messages to their communities designed to calm and assure. Many have taken a public stand, naming their campuses “sanctuaries.” (No one quite knows what that will mean IRL though. Are the campus police really not going to enforce laws? Many of these folks, of course, are ex-cops.)
Advisors of all stripes – in the international students and scholars’ offices, faculty and professional advisors, RA’s and other peer advisors – have been quick to send encouraging messages of support to international students. Even though there is not much to say right now except we support you and please avoid demonstrations so that you don’t get arrested.
The vast armies of people responsible for the budgets and enrollment management are sitting in meetings and at their desks poring over excel spreadsheets to alter forecasts of the numbers of international students who will be paying tuition in the coming semester and years. Bloomberg estimates the potential loss at $700M.
International students have gotten the least sleep of all. When I ask advisors what they are hearing on the ground, the anecdotes range from students having panic attacks or weeping at unexpected moments, like on the grocery store line when someone might look askance at them, to some students already packing up their bags and heading home. It’s not only the students from the 7 countries named in the executive order. Even students from Western Europe are worried. And, some would say, not without reason.
The counseling centers, which are stretched to the max on a good day, are completely overrun with students needing to talk, to get assurance somewhere. Many of them are from cultures that stigmatize “talk therapy” or any psychological treatments whatsoever. And yet they need to go somewhere. They are frightened. Anxious. Terrified.
Our campuses are now a place of fear. Not the ordinary “someone might steal my laptop if I leave it too long unattended in the library.” This is real fear. Terror even. Students, faculty, administrators, executives – they are all worried.
How much learning can take place in this atmosphere? Learning requires receptivity, an open mind. If we are spending our time reacting to a world of alternative facts, to edicts that mean we lose our colleagues and friends, to the just plain wrong conflation of Islam with terrorism, to the increased isolation of our country from the benefits of interacting peacefully with others, our learning suffers. With all of these sleepless nights, the question hanging over everyone’s head is – Where will this end? It doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.