10 No. 6
Battling the Demons
Students, mental health, and the specter of violence on campus
Getting help for troubled students
Video: Dealing with students at risk
“Today a student walks out of a math test and picks up the cell phone, and Mom knows immediately how the test went. Parents haven’t cut the apron strings, and many little issues get blown out of proportion.”
“The thing you’re most worried about is not someone going out and shooting people. . . . Suicide, eating disorders that can lead to heart attacks, alcohol and drug abuse that lead to accidents—those are the ways we lose students. ”
Re-imagining health care reform
From old paradox to new paradigm
Academic Exchange: Do faculty seem more sensitive to issues of student mental health?
Thomas D. Lancaster: I can’t say we’re getting more phone calls, but I do know that more students are coming in with mental health issues. Emory is very well equipped for taking a proactive approach to these issues. If a student has a serious psychological problem, we hope they talk to someone at the counseling center. If a faculty member says, I have a student who hasn’t shown up in three weeks, we send one of the deans or academic advisors out to inquire and find out what’s going on. Our faculty should know or learn over time that we do care about students and that we have a built-in system to support them. What an individual faculty member may not know, because they don’t have a way of communicating, is that the same student is missing other classes. The Office for Undergraduate Education is in the middle.
Ultimately we try to pull together the story of what’s going on with a student. If a student needs time away from Emory we work with them; we’re very accommodating about such leaves. But by being away from Emory they’re often outside the support system they need, such as mental health counseling, which Emory provides because they are a student. Students not attending Emory have to find their own way to get that support. That’s a delicate balance.
AE: Are you concerned about security in your office?
TDL: We had conversations within the Office for Undergraduate Education and with campus police about security. One of our deans deals with the college honor code. That’s not an easy issue. Students convicted of an honor code violation can be potentially explosive. One conviction can keep you out of medical school or law school. We’ve also had conversations about installing security cameras in this building. That’s not a direct consequence of the recent shootings elsewhere, but just the nature of the times. All faculty are sensitive to the fact that all universities, and Emory specifically, are very much concerned about the nature of a university—that we have to be open. When you start imposing security, you’re going to cut off the essence of what makes a university unique.
AE: You’ve mentioned that parents have changed. How so?
TDL: The “helicopter parent” is a national trend. It’s amazing to me that people of my generation, who attended college in the late sixties and early seventies—the do-your-own-thing generation—have become the very parents who micromanage their own children. We’ve gone to the other extreme. When I was in college I would never have thought to have my parents call the dean or professor and give them an excuse for why I got “B” on a paper. Today a student walks out of a math test and picks up the cell phone, and Mom knows immediately how the test went. Parents haven’t cut the apron strings, and many little issues get blown out of proportion. I think there’s a loss of perspective in terms of the very way we’re raising our children. If you scrape your knee, you learn it hurts to fall. Parents are now preventing their children from scraping their knees.
AE: Are socioeconomic factors at play?
TDL: That’s a fair hypothesis. Fifty percent of Emory College students are paying the full freight, and that’s not a small penny. The parents are very successful people who can afford to send children here, and if mom and dad are successful, damn it, Johnny is going to be successful even if he doesn’t want to be. There’s also a sociological phenomenon that is well documented in the higher education literature of what students expect from a university, particularly elite private universities like Emory, and it’s one of the reasons why tuition continues to rise. It used to be that you moved into the dorm, and the dorm was OK, but it wasn’t the best place. Now during campus tours, parents and potential students expect to see a country club-like atmosphere. We’re building a huge freshman village, which I’m very supportive of. Today’s students expect their housing to be like a Hilton in order to choose us over Duke, Vanderbilt, Harvard, or Yale. It’s a higher education arms race, and that’s what’s generating higher costs.
Lancaster was interviewed for this article before his resignation in April.