Opinion | Op-eds

Columbia administrators need to fight for change

Dean Kevin Shollenberger deserves credit for his recent op-ed ("The education of overcoming," Nov. 16), in which he acknowledges that the culture of stress on Columbia’s campus needs to change. Few administrators have spoken out about student wellness this frankly, and it’s encouraging that he is committed to having a real dialogue with students.

Nevertheless, any discussion about what Columbians can do to change campus culture should acknowledge the ways that we are each complicit in it. So while I am excited that the dean opened this dialogue, I am disappointed that he does not acknowledge administrators’ shared responsibility in improving student well-being. Instead, Shollenberger shifts the burden to students, suggesting some students just “lack the life experience necessary to handle setbacks,” and that we should “accept that we are not invincible,” as if the main thing that needs to change at Columbia is our attitudes.

Of course, Shollenberger is not wrong when he says that Columbia students participate in a culture of stress and academic perfectionism. He is not wrong when he says that Columbia students view stress as a norm: A 2011 Health Services Study found the same thing. And neither is he wrong when he observes that Columbia students often find it hard to reach out and seek help in times of weakness.

But what he doesn’t really address is the way that administrators participate in the creation of this campus culture. At our undergraduate colleges, where students fight tooth and nail to get attention from academic advisers, where students’ basic needs are compartmentalized out to an endless labyrinth of faceless bureaucracies, where the number of free counseling sessions are being reduced and physical education classes are being slashed, it is upsetting to hear a dean say that the problem simply lies with us. We are already powerless.

It is administrators who decide where money goes. It is administrators who ultimately make the decisions that allow campus life to thrive—or wither. And if administrators identify problems with student life but are not fighting to meaningfully improve it, then they are perpetuating the status quo.

I take issue with Shollenberger’s well-meaning suggestion that stress simply “builds character,” and heralds the beginning of an “exciting journey of discovery, learning, and growth.” If we are to make progress on this issue, we need to first realize that the rigors of college are not always benign. According to Dr. Anne Goldfield of Counseling and Psychological Services, two-thirds of Columbia students have felt “hopeless” at some point, a quarter report sleeping problems, and about one in every 16 have seriously considered suicide.

We should be asking: How does stress affect students’ mental health? Do complex administrative procedures reduce the ability of students to get help? Can we find a way to unify disparate campus bureaucracies into an experience that treats students as whole beings? These are tough questions, but they are crucial—and won’t be solved by dismissing stress as a harmless learning experience. We need a serious examination of how Columbia’s institutional structure affects the quality of student life—and we need real action to create improvements.

To be fair, the dean has taken important steps. In his piece, he makes an important call for dialogue and compassion. I am also grateful to the dean for implementing a staff-wide mental health training session back in January. And I will always be thankful for the dean’s support of the Student Wellness Project.

However, the presence of student activism should never serve as a reason for administrative inaction. The SWP has a yearly budget of $350. Our members have midterms and papers and finals, and we pass through this campus in the blink of an eye. Our only real power is to start conversations, like the open forum on wellness between students and administrators this Sunday afternoon. But dialogue only goes so far.

The real challenge: Can we turn analysis into action; discourse into resources? The reality is that we will not make progress without strong action by administrators who care enough—and are moved enough by our voices—to fight for us. And I know that when that happens, we students will have their backs, every step of the way.

The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science. He is the founder of the Student Wellness Project.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Wonderful article! Thank you so much Wilfred. I really hope administrators see the need for them to be more involved in alleviating stress for students on campus and how their involvement is in fact vital in reaching more tangible solutions.

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Anonymous posted on

Spot on! I made the same point that the Univeristy too easily shifts the blame to students on topics such as these in my Spec column "The Kids are Alright" a few weeks ago. Glad to see this response to Dean Shollenger's well-meaning but analytically off op-ed.

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Anonymous posted on

Columbia is a university (not only that, an elite university) - they have some responsibility of care for those that are really having serious welfare issues, but it's not their job at all to create campus culture. Wilfred says " It is administrators who ultimately make the decisions that allow campus life to thrive—or wither." and I totally disagree: it's students who make campus life thrive or whither, and it's the students who are constantly bitching about how hard their lives are whilst they hang out with the three people that lived on their freshman year floor in Furnald until 4am in their "Keep Calm and Graduate" shirts who actually kill campus life.

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Anonymous posted on

I think the article is talking about the larger points: if a school allocates money towards building a new Manhattanville campus, while taking away undergraduate space and funding for undergraduate student life, then they are letting campus life wither. If a school underfunds things like CPS or Health Services, so students can't even get the help they need, they are letting campus life wither. If a school routinely fails to discourage its students from taking 5-6 classes (most students at our peer institutions take 4-5), and has crappy academic advising that leads people to overburden themselves or get stuck because of bureaucratic procedures, then that school is letting campus life wither. etc.

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