Students are not coping with university life. The situation is reaching crisis proportions, causing college administrators to have a coping problem of their own.
Most of the problems involve anxiety and stress at levels unknown to past generations. Many of the nation’s 21 million college students also lack social skills finding it difficult to interact with others.
Consider these facts. A recent survey showed that over the past year, some three out of five students suffered from overwhelming anxiety. Two out of five students reported depression to the point of being unable to function. In addition, substance abuse is rampant, which inhibits their ability to interact and learn.
The problem is made worse by the fact that most affected students do not seek help. As a result, many university counseling centers are readjusting their strategies to look for ways to reach out to these students and address their needs, reduce suicide risks and diminish drug use. Many schools are adopting radical approaches that go beyond the normal safeguards needed to deal with unruly youth.
These new problems challenge the whole system. Dysfunctional students impact the entire university community and weigh down the learning process. However, all too often, the well-intentioned administrators deal with symptoms, not causes.
The Nanny State University
Indeed, the university is reduced to a nanny institution caring for grown-up children. It cannot take the place of parents. It will not exercise discipline or affirm moral principles. Instead, the university will introduce childish programs or implement rigid stopgap measures to help the students, now adults, learn what they should have learned as children.
University administrators are now teaching the bare bones basics to help students cope with the stress that comes with independent college life. They are asked to help students manage friendships and emotions. To create certainty, schools offer problem-solving and decision-making programs. Existential problems must also be resolved as students need to find life purpose, meaning and even identity.
This crisis forces many schools to go beyond the much-ridiculed safe spaces and coloring books, although they still may be offered.
Some Services Offered
The new programs and services vary from shallow to invasive. Illinois’ Northwestern University, for example, offers a simple app called “Breathe” as a stress management tool. Students access guided meditations and breathing exercises to de-stress and instill confidence and well-being.
Some campuses focus on breaking through the loneliness and isolation by creating feel-good opportunities for students to interact with others, and thus reduce mental health and suicide risks.
Thus, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) holds a Random Acts of Kindness week, which encourages self-centered students to connect with kind acts like pinning happy messages on backpacks and giving out flowers to people. MIT Libraries encourage old-fashioned letters by providing stationary, postage and envelopes to students to write to people anywhere in the world. One MIT course gave out five dollar credits in campus cash accounts under the condition that students spend the money on things for someone else.
Involving Others to Monitor Students at Risk
The programs are not limited to services extended to students. They also involve the training of others to identify and act upon students at risk of anti-social or suicidal behavior. University officials are enlisting the help of residence hall staff, faculty, advisors and even fellow students to identify and intervene in cases of crisis.
The University of Pennsylvania developed its I CARE program as a means of building an interactive network of students, faculty and staff trained to intervene.
Other campuses are resorting to 24/7 crisis phones or chat lines that deal with mental health issues and suicide attempts. In keeping with the times, the University of California, Davis is using, not a hotline, but a Crisis Text Line (CTL) that provides instant mental health assistance via texting. The CTL features a digital toolkit and web site that publicizes university services.
The “Means Restriction” Option
There are even more radical measures being implemented. It is not enough to monitor students or make treatment accessible.
There is what is called “means restriction.” This consists of limiting or removing access to places, things and other means that might lead others to self-harm. Dangerous things include access to arms, chemicals, rooftops, windows and high places. Campuses are encouraged to do an “environmental scan” to identify any place that might have a remote chance of proving lethal or dangerous to unstable students.
New York’s Cornell University has restricted access to problem areas near campus, even to the point of installing safety nets under city-owned bridges.
No system can ever be completely safe. Unbalanced minds will find ways of circumventing any programs that are put in place to guarantee their safety. Real solutions must address the causes of unbalance.
Something is seriously wrong with the formation of these students in their earlier years. They lack those life skills that are normally taught in the home. Small children gradually learn to deal with the proportional problems that prepare them later to tackle bigger problems.
There is also a lack of social skills because so many children are self-centered and are not taught to think in terms of helping others. Indeed, they are immersed in the frenetic intemperance of a culture that seeks gratification. Such conditions are the natural breeding ground for mental health and substance abuse problems.
Worst of all, young people are not taught to embrace sacrifice and suffering that they all must eventually face. Many do not recognize an objective moral law that defines right and wrong and guides their actions with meaning and purpose. They are not accustomed to having recourse to a loving God Who can aid them in their afflictions.
Thus, when they leave home, they find themselves alone and unable to cope. Given that most universities will exclude a moral solution, the problem will only get worse.
It’s being called “one of the worst academic freedom violations we’ve seen this year” and it involves a college escorting off campus a librarian who had the audacity to include historic images of students in blackface in a photo display.
The issue that developed at Doane University in Nebraska is being addressed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
“Doane University’s punishment of a faculty librarian for refusing to censor the school’s difficult past is one of the worst academic freedom violations we’ve seen this year,” said Alex Morey, a FIRE program officer.
“The university is effectively preventing people from confronting its history by labeling it ‘harassment.’ Doane administrators seem to think they’re better suited than faculty to judge when and how tough subjects can be taught. That’s not how academic freedom works.”
It was faculty librarian Melissa Gomis who was suspended for “curating a historical photo display on ‘Parties of the Past’ from the university’s archival collection.”
Two of those images appeared to show Doane students at a 1926 masquerade party wearing blackface, FIRE reported.
“Gomis, who is the director of Doane’s Perkins Library and holds the faculty rank of associate professor, created the exhibit to explore the history of Doane social events since the 1800s. First posted in March, the display followed the ongoing national debate surrounding offensive Halloween and party costumes and recent national attention to the history of blackface in universities’ yearbooks,” FIRE reported.
A student complained, and Gomis then removed them, but that wasn’t enough.
“Doane Provost Paul Savory soon ordered the remainder of the exhibit shuttered, and Gomis was removed from campus and placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into whether use of the photos constituted ‘discriminatory harassment,’” FIRE reported.
Gomis later was reinstated.
But the university declined to respond when FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter asking whether the school would clarify whether it actually honors the promises of academic freedom it makes to faculty.
“Marching Melissa off campus and forbidding her to step foot on campus or use university email even after she removed the offending photographs was an extraordinarily damaging action on the part of the administration,” said Chris Wentworth, of the school’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “My best guess is that our administrators just were not thinking very deeply or carefully about the issues involved. We clearly have much work to do in restoring trust.”
Even though school officials commented extensively to the Lincoln Star-Journal and the Omaha World-Herald, they then told FIRE they do “not and will not comment.”
The letter from FIRE and NCAC had reminded school officials of their academic freedom policy that gives faculty latitude on teaching “tough topics.”
“While Doane is a private university not bound by the First Amendment, private institutions that make voluntary academic freedom promises to its faculty are contractually and morally bound to uphold them,” FIRE reported.
FIRE and NCAC have asked the university “to rescind any punishment related to this matter and clarify its commitment to academic and expressive freedom.”