Higher ed needs to destigmatize suicide (essay)

I was saddened last week to read about the suicide of Professor Will Moore at Arizona State University. Everyone’s path is different, but mine led me to attempt suicide last semester. Like Moore, I wrote a series of notes on social media and then did not expect to wake up. Waking up from a suicide attempt, the first thing I learned was that there is a latent social stigma around it that, in fact, protects suicide and helps it survive.

It struck me that Moore’s last note called out this “taboo” around suicide. He’s right. It is not to be talked about, especially in print. I experienced this in the first draft of this article, which was rejected by another publication that responded, “We receive dozens of manuscripts each week on all sorts of topics and have to make some tough choices.” Tough choices. Yes. Well, talking about suicide can even be difficult in therapy. I remember my therapist referring to it as “the overdose” with a bit of Southern charm -- suggesting that the issue wasn’t mental health, the norms of academe or a social system that has failed me but rather an unfortunate accident. My overdose was not an accident. And it had no charm.

I was teaching last semester, and halfway through I took pills. Specifically, a lot of pills. I took them on the weekend and woke up unexpectedly a day or so later. At some point early on, in the haze of consciousness and aliveness, I realized that I needed to prepare my lectures for the week. And so I did. I tried to kill myself on Saturday night, woke up on Sunday night and taught on Tuesday and Wednesday. In academe, that is part of the dysfunctional routine we normalize. We research and we teach, even when we have tried very hard to kill ourselves two days before. I think this is, dare I say, a fatal flaw in academe. So I wanted to note three things I have learned.

First, people might not understand the side effects from surviving trying to kill yourself. They are really terrible. If you go to the hospital, you might have a different experience because it is possible to pump your stomach, but I did not go to the hospital. I was worried about losing my job at the university if I did. What if they committed me? Who would teach my courses that week? Would this get out and be a mark against me in looking for future jobs?

So I stayed home and drank water. The results were physically devastating. I had difficulty walking and seeing for two weeks. I now have asthma and high blood pressure. Somehow I taught -- the way we all do when our friends tell us, “Whatever you do, don’t go in to work.” I stayed out of my colleagues’ way that week, got through my classes and went home to bed.

Second, there is no easy way to talk about mental-health events in the workplace. This truth was also echoed in the recent piece on Moore. How do you have a conversation that you have been systematically trained not to have? In our academic departments, we celebrate the arrival of new babies, we commemorate deaths, we bring cake for birthdays and we go out for drinks for promotions. We celebrate the positive but avoid confronting the often sad reality. Where does attempted suicide fit into this? Maybe it isn’t something to share. Maybe it is “too much information,” like domestic violence. Maybe this is another sad thing that is something to be silenced, hidden away -- assuming that next time, next time, it’ll be “successful.” That’s a much easier goal to have: death. It works for those who are suicidal and those who don’t want to have the conversation. Yet this uncomfortable situation betrays a truth that, in academe, this is a conversation literally dying to be had.

And, last, our students get it, yet we perpetuate a double standard. Our students experience mental-health issues, and we encourage them to talk and seek help. Our students attempt suicide and we give them support in class. It would never sink their future careers. When it is us, however, we shut down.

So we (the academy) should ask why we are tiptoeing around an issue that is part of the lived experience of our faculty and that, if unacknowledged, could lead to death. As many of us can attest, good mental health for all staff and faculty members is not a reality in most departments. I have written this piece using a pseudonym. As the Inside Higher Ed article on Moore noted, where you are in your career dramatically influences what you feel safe talking about. I am in the early part of my career, so I’m terrified of losing my employability.

Indeed, the real task falls to colleges and universities to step up on behalf of adjuncts, untenured professors and all other faculty and staff members. They should consider 2017 as an opportunity to engage not simply in suicide prevention but also suicide destigmatization. This is an affirmative step that should not wait for the death of another Moore or situations like mine. Because you cannot ask people who are suicidal to solve this problem -- that’s the whole point, we need help, and here we are, asking for it.

So I would leave you with this: very good people can have very bad days, and those people should not do what I did. They should go to the hospital, feel free to tell their colleagues and speak up about it before it is too late. Stigma is something we all reproduce or disrupt. Universities can be leaders here. Today.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The author works at a large public research university.

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The growing challenge of engaging alums in a crowded content market (essay)

Anyone looking at aerial photos of Donald Trump’s inauguration next to those of Barack Obama’s drew some quick conclusions in January. For those of us who produce large-scale events, however, there was an eerie similarity to the decline of inaugural attendance in those eight years and the decline of event attendance everywhere.

The Rio Olympic Games last summer prompted several versions of this headline: Why so many empty seats? The question has become a familiar one since the rise of on-demand everything. Why trek to a stadium, inauguration or lecture hall when I can watch it on my own schedule in my own couch groove?

I’m not too concerned about attendance at the Olympics or inaugurations. Even the rows upon rows of empty seats and skyboxes at major-league playoffs don’t concern me all too much. But an empty seat at a college alumni event, that troubles me. And not just because it’s my job at stake.

Who’s the culprit? No one and everyone. The culprit is the content bubble itself.

Colleges and universities should have built-in audiences for their events. Even if they charge admission for TED-like alumni symposia -- the kind I curate as director of alumni education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- attendance has always been robust in the past. What better way to pass an evening than by watching former classmates one-up each other in battles of oratory?

That said, a half century ago, before I could summon a meet-up in Muncie on a Monday on a smartphone, alumni gatherings made a lot more sense than they do today. MIT’s records show 3 percent to 5 percent of the entire alumni body attended class reunions a half century ago; now we’re getting a little more accustomed to 1 percent. At regional events, staff in 1967 could expect to meet 20 percent of alumni at a faculty talk in New York or San Francisco; currently, that number is 4 percent on a good day.

Having a built-in audience for events is not the only assumption with which alumni offices must now cope. According to a 2013 Council for the Advancement and Support of Education report, less than half of all alumni read an institution’s magazine once in a year. About 35 percent glance at its email; 25 percent visit its website. From its birth, social media was never a given for universities. At MIT, LinkedIn is highest, but we’ve only verified 23 percent of our alumni on it.

To a university, an empty seat at an event does not just mean lower concession sales. Event attendance for colleges and nonprofits is easily correlated with volunteerism, engagement with mission and giving. A 2016 report from the Education Advisory Board notes that 36 percent of event attendees become donors, while only 3 percent of disengaged alumni give.

While I can’t do anything about the growth of the content bubble, I offer these coping tactics.

  • Know the market -- although knowledge can increase sorrow. Last April, we hosted an alumni panel event in Denver, a midsize city where one might expect less crowded calendars. But scanning the likes of Meetup, Eventbrite, Yelp, TEDx (Colorado somehow has eight TEDx chapters) and local event aggregators, the competition was daunting as we prepared to publicize. Even after applying all my snooty filters, at least three other nerdy events I wanted to attend myself on the night of our event were occurring in the city. In the end, we got 80 alumni in the door, 4.9 percent of the state’s living alumni.
  • Content is king, but even kings need ad budgets now. Investing more on marketing than catering for an event might become the new normal. We didn’t spend more than $1,000 to advertise any single event last year, and we only bought promoted space alongside aggressive email and peer-to-peer campaigns. My friends in the for-profit sector marvel at our click and conversion rates on Facebook. But something still doesn’t sit right in paying $5 for each alum to further consider attending an event.
  • Segmentation is nice, but so is inundation. Our competition for real estate in inboxes is Facebook and LiveNation, which do drip marketing with gusto, and our alumni’s favorite local businesses and nonprofits, which are learning. I’m not certain unsubscribes matter anymore. If your staff is arguing over whether they should send students or alumni a second email this week, they’re picking the wrong battle.

In the past year, some 31,000 MIT alumni -- 23 percent -- attended campus or regional events, with 9,000 connecting intellectually back to the university in some way. Those numbers still have a comfortable amount of zeros at the end of them, but we and our colleagues at other universities would be wise to think creatively about how we are re-engaging our former students. How will we compete with Facebook, which now has event curators, and CitiBank, which now has alumni relations officers?

More broadly, declining event attendance across nearly all sectors (as reported by LiveAnalytics) is cause for concern for any mission-driven organizations, particularly ones less resourced than elite universities.

We might go one step farther and track the parallel declines in event attendance with the abysmal voter turnout of recent years.

Which brings me back to politics. In the same month that the Democratic Party took a long look at itself in the mirror, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index demoted the United States to a “flawed democracy” due to its “low levels of political participation.” If the very basics of democracy -- like bringing like minds together to speak openly -- are at stake, colleges and universities can’t afford to ignore this worrying trend.

Joe McGonegal is director of alumni education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Controversy over Alice Goffman leads Pomona students to say her alleged racial insensitivities disqualify her from visiting professorship

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Controversy over Alice Goffman's book lives on, with students at Pomona saying the sociologist's alleged racial insensitivities should disqualify her from a visiting professorship there.

Cincinnati Law Dean Sues for Reinstatement

University of Cincinnati College of Law Dean Jennifer Bard is suing the university and its interim provost after she was placed on administrative leave last month, alleging violations of due process and freedom of speech as well as breach of contract.

Bard’s complaint, filed late Friday in the Western Division of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, says that she was illegally placed on leave after she responded to media reports about faculty members who were attempting to have her removed. Bard told The Cincinnati Business Courier a “small but vocal cabal” of faculty members was trying to have her ousted after she moved to close a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

In response, University of Cincinnati Interim Provost Peter Landgren placed Bard on leave, the complaint alleges. It also alleges that Bard attempted to go through a mediation process with faculty members but was blocked by the interim provost.

The suit seeks Bard’s reinstatement as law school dean and a statement from the university and interim provost that she engaged in no misconduct. It also requests compensatory and punitive damages from Landgren for allegedly violating Bard’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, along with monetary damages from the university for breach of contract.

“I came to UC in good faith, deeply committed to addressing the College of Law’s failure to adapt to a rapidly changing legal market,” Bard said in a statement. ”Although I enjoyed the support of the students and many highly talented faculty and staff, the university now seems committed to seeing a small, entitled minority of faculty hijack reform efforts that should be dedicated solely to the welfare of its students. I have no recourse but to protect my good name and encourage an open discussion of the deeply rooted and ongoing problems that existed here well before my arrival.”

Bard is the first woman to be dean of the university’s College of Law. She was placed on leave less than two years after her hiring in July 2015.

A University of Cincinnati spokesman told The Cincinnati Enquirer that the university was reviewing the lawsuit and welcomed the chance to “present the truth” in court.

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Vocational education surges but continues to struggle with image and gender imbalance

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Demand surges for graduates of career and technical programs at two-year colleges, yet vocational education continues to struggle with an image problem and a deep gender imbalance.

Kristina Johnson Will Be Next Chancellor of SUNY

Kristina M. Johnson will be named the next chancellor of the State University of New York System today, The New York Times reported. A leader in engineering education, Johnson has been dean of the engineering school at Duke University and provost of Johns Hopkins University. In 2009, President Obama nominated her and she was confirmed as U.S. under secretary of energy.

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New Course on Proactive Advising

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities this week introduced a new online course that seeks to help college administrators design and use proactive student advising systems.

Such systems attempt to nudge more students toward graduation and often include the use of technology, such as predictive analytics. Creating a high-quality proactive advising approach can be costly and complicated, said APLU. To help colleges get it right, the group's six-lesson, self-paced course draws on the experience of veteran college administrators.

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Court: UT Austin Can't Revoke Chemistry Ph.D.

A Texas appeals court last week granted an injunction to a 2008 chemistry Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin who’s fighting to keep her doctorate after accusations of scientific misconduct. Suvi Orr’s dissertation paper was retracted for unreproducible data in 2012, but she’s since argued that she misread data and didn’t falsify anything. Austin has twice taken the rare step of trying to revoke Orr’s degree, and she’s sued the university each time, arguing that she wasn’t given an opportunity to defend herself and that she’s the “sacrificial lamb” for an ultimately culpable professor, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The injunction says Austin can’t proceed with actions that could result in the revocation of Orr’s Ph.D. -- specifically a disciplinary process that Orr has called a "kangaroo court" -- until a court of law rules on her full complaint.

A university spokesperson said via email that the institution “respects our students' privacy and, as a policy, will not publicly discuss an individual student's academic performance or issues related to it. We will continue to respond to this lawsuit through the appropriate legal channels.”

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FAMU Faculty Members Air Concerns Over Pharmacy Dean

Over a dozen Florida A&M University faculty members detailed their concerns about the dean of the pharmacy college in a letter sent to administrators and the Board of Trustees last week, The Tallahassee Democrat reported.

At an informal discussion in March, faculty members pointed out many issues they had with Michael Thompson, dean of the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at FAMU. However, in the letter sent to the interim provost, interim president and Faculty Senate president, the 15 faculty members wrote that those issues had not been addressed.

The letter was written and sent days after one employee at COPPS broke a colleague’s nose during an argument in the lobby of the pharmacy college building, according to The Democrat.

It also comes after FAMU learned its most recent graduates posted a 59.9 percent first-time passing rate on the national licensure exam for pharmacy. With that pass rate, FAMU is last among 129 colleges whose students take the same exam.

The faculty members who penned the letter told The Democrat that it was written as a call for action -- they want to address the low test scores and internal struggles at COPPS and propel the program forward. FAMU’s pharmacy college accounts for 60 percent of the country’s black graduates in pharmaceutical sciences.

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Saint Rose Faculty Call for President's Ouster

Faculty at the College of Saint Rose voted last week to request that its president, Carolyn Stefanco, be removed from her position, The Times Union reported.

After calling for her ouster by a more than two-to-one margin, the faculty asked the Board of Trustees to dismiss the president. In response, however, the trustees announced their “unwavering support” for Stefanco.

The faculty said it had lost confidence in Stefanco’s leadership because she created an “atmosphere filled with fear of retaliation” at the private New York college.

Since filling the position in summer 2014, the president has overseen dramatic cuts to academic programs and faculty member positions. When the college was facing a $9 million deficit in December 2015, Stefanco suggested slashing 23 faculty positions and 27 academic programs.

At the same time, many faculty and administrators have left the university of their own accord, according to The Times Union. Three of the four deans at the college have said they are leaving.

“Morale is low among everyone at the college,” said Kathleen Crowley, a professor who voted for Stefanco’s ouster.

From the trustees’ perspective, Stefanco has navigated many difficult situations in her three years with Saint Rose. She oversaw the largest first-year class in the college’s history last fall as well as new master’s and bachelor’s programs.

"President Stefanco is leading this institution through a changing environment impacting higher education institutions throughout the nation," the trustees said in a letter to the faculty after last week’s 63-29 vote for Stefanco’s removal.

"Change is difficult, but this is the time for the administration and the faculty to get together behind the strategic plan we have charted to help our college succeed."

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