What is the university doing to address the pressure placed on undergraduates?
Date: October 2019
As instructors of first-year writing seminar courses we are often given exceptional glimpses into the experiences of undergrad students, who confide in us easily about problems they have in their departments and other classes.
I just met with a student in engineering who described a departmental climate where professors regularly insist that unless students are working until 2am each night and going without sleep then they are not working hard enough. We all know that sometimes these kinds of pushes are necessary, but to present this as a daily expectation is absurd. Whether meant literally or not, the anxiety this rhetoric induces in students is palpable, and frankly disturbing – the student summed up the environment as “miserable.” It also reeks of class bias and ableism. What about students who need to have jobs? Or who have family obligations? Or disabilities? How does that attitude not perpetuate structural inequity? It is one thing for Cornell (and competitive universities at large) to say it wants to be more inclusive, but as long as these working conditions persist, I just can’t see how students in any of these situations are expected to thrive. Just because they turn the work in on time and do well (as most do) doesn’t mean that they are actually getting the supportive learning environment that everyone deserves. And if the justification for such a dangerous working environment is that it trains students for the conditions of their future professions, we should be all the more wary of perpetuating them.
What is the university doing to address the unnecessary and damaging pressure placed upon undergraduate students?
A concerned educator and Ph.D. candidate
Dear Concerned Educator and Ph.D. Candidate,
Thank you for your very thoughtful observations and concerns. I share your concerns. They reflect some of my own undergraduate experience elsewhere (now, a long time ago) when I was a work-study student with a job that meant additional time-management obligations on my part that many of my peers did not have. Your observations also reflect my (more recent) experiences as a parent of two college-age daughters whose educational experiences reflected some of what you are reporting.
Given your focus on stresses associated with the Cornell educational climate for undergraduates, I consulted with Cornell’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, who would welcome further discussion with you if you’re interested in reaching out to her. I shared your message with her, without your name and contact information. She appreciated receiving your feedback, finding it very valuable to help articulate specific examples when discussing these issues with Cornell faculty. Messages like those you shared exacerbate stress for students, and having examples of lived experiences helps her in efforts with others to make faculty aware of the impact their words can have on students.
You may be aware that Cornell is undergoing a comprehensive review of mental health on campus, including focus on both clinical and academic elements. She will share your anonymized comments with those leading the effort, particularly as your observations relate to academic stressors. In addition, if you would like to submit comments directly to the Mental Health Review team, you can do so and find more information about the review on the mental health review website.
Thank you again for your concerns,
Barbara A. Knuth
Dean of the Graduate School