Promoting Student Health and Well-Being on College Campuses
Students at Cornell and across the country roll their eyes when parents and grandparents recollect the rules and regulations that governed campus life a generation and more ago. Dress codes. Parietal hours. Dorm proctors to enforce curfews.
Today many institutions, including Cornell, give students considerable freedom but hold them responsible for the choices they make. Nonetheless, I believe that colleges and universities must do more to promote the health and well-being of our students. Here are a few areas where I think we should step up our efforts:
High-risk drinking: Most students drink moderately or not at all, but high-risk drinking can compromise the safety of the drinker and those around him or her. Like many other schools, we disseminate data to correct students’ misperceptions about what “everyone” is doing. Restrictions are also placed—and enforced—on the use of alcohol on campus and at fraternity and sorority events, and medical amnesty (“Good Samaritan”) policies have encouraged bystanders to call 911 when individuals are severely intoxicated or injured after using alcohol or other drugs.
We know, however, that more needs to be done. Cornell and thirty-one other institutions nationwide are part of the National College Health Improvement Project’s Learning Collaborative on High Risk Drinking (www.nchip.org), which is working to identify and share what works best in preventing alcohol abuse. I hope that this comprehensive approach to discovering and sharing best practices will reduce high-risk drinking among our students.
Hazing: Although forty-four states have laws against hazing, about 55 percent of college students across the country report having been hazed in fraternities, sororities, athletic teams, or other student groups. After a Cornell student died at a fraternity house in a hazing episode, I directed student leaders of our Greek chapters to develop a system of recruitment and initiation that does not involve demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership. Our student leaders, staff professionals, and alumni are now developing alternative models. We have a comprehensive anti-hazing website (www.hazing.cornell.edu) and recently launched a campaign to give students strategies to protect themselves and help change the culture of hazing.
Mental health promotion: College students, like all of us, can experience a great deal of stress from family problems, interpersonal relationships, the rigors of academic work, or other issues. And thanks to better diagnosis and treatment, more students with mental health conditions are enrolling in college. We in higher education need to take a comprehensive approach to mental health promotion, encouraging students to ask for help when they need it, educating the campus community about how to notice and respond effectively when someone is in distress, and fostering emotional resilience so that students are better able to bounce back from setbacks.
Concussion prevention: An estimated 300,000 sports-related traumatic brain injuries, most of them concussions, occur annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We need to take preventive and therapeutic action to keep our players safer while retaining the excitement and competitiveness of their sports. To this end, the presidents of the Ivy League have adopted significant changes to the way our football teams practice and play. We are now examining other sports such as soccer, ice hockey, and lacrosse, for both men and women. In addition, the Ivy League and the Big Ten Conference have begun a joint research project to examine and address head injuries among athletes. While we await the results of this research, I urge coaches, administrators, and others involved with college sports to modify their practice regimens and requirements for protective equipment in order to reduce the likelihood of concussions or other traumatic brain injuries and to recognize the importance of cognitive rest following a concussion.
Colleges and universities in New York and other states do not have a legal responsibility to protect students from their own risky behavior or that of other students. And try as we might, it would be impossible to remove all potential risk. Nonetheless, colleges and universities need to think creatively about the challenges of hazing, high-risk drinking, suicides, concussions, and other risks. Together with parents, community leaders, legislators, and students themselves, we must tackle these issues more aggressively, promoting safety through education and the provision of support services that will assist students in exercising their freedom responsibly.
A longer version of this column appeared in the Huffington Post..