On November 18, 2015, the Center for Ethics Education and the Institutional Equity and Compliance Office hosted discussion with Fordham faculty and teaching fellows entitled “Exploring Faculty Responsibilities Toward Students in Distress.” This seminar featured brief presentations by Fordham faculty from different departments and an illuminating discussion about experiences, challenges, and opportunities for faculty encountering students in distress.
The recommendations that resulted from the discussion are now available on the Center for Ethics Education website. In addition to the recommendations, this site also includes guidelines and resources for handling students in distress.
One set of issues addressed in the seminar concern the following reporting obligations:
- How should faculty handle their reporting obligations when they learn a student has been a victim or perpetrator of sexual harassment, rape or other forms of sexual violence?
- How should faculty respond when they have knowledge of a hate crime committed on campus or by students or faculty?
A second set of issues concern what types of interventive actions are appropriate when a faculty member is told or suspects a student is distressed as a result of mental health issues, substance use, or family, economic or life stressors, etc.)
- How can a faculty member act in helpful ways that do not violate responsible student-faculty boundaries?
- How should faculty address distress communicated in class papers and other writing?
These situations require thoughtful reflection on the most appropriate way to respond, balancing our commitment to Cura Personalis–providing not only for the student’s academic needs, but for other aspects of their well-being–while also ensuring that our actions are appropriate and do not overstep the boundaries between student and faculty, potentially creating harm. Our 90-minute faculty discussion focused on three main themes with respect to helping faculty professionally address their responsibilities toward students in distress: commitment, competence, and responsible decision-making.
Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Director Dr. Celia B. Fisher commented: “We benefited from the commitment and wisdom of Fordham faculty who generously shared their concerns and strategies for supporting the University’s mission of Cura Personalis by identifying practices that can help create classroom climates and faculty-student communication responsive to events that may cause student distress.”
In his opening remarks, Dr. Adam Fried, Assistant Director of the Center for Ethics Education commented, “Some faculty may feel that they do not have a responsibility to act, that they do not have the appropriate training to intervene and that maintaining their role as instructor is primary and that others in the student’s life, such as family, friends, or student affairs are the responsible parties. Other faculty may feel that they are in by far the best position to act, that the student is unwilling to confide in their family, friends and others in their life, and that the faculty have a unique opportunity to make a significant difference in the student’s life. Both approaches may have merit, but also have risks and can cause harm.”
The event continued with remarks from Anastasia Coleman, the university’s Title IX officer; Dr. Miriam Arbeit, Postdoctoral Fellow and Program Administrator of the Center for Ethics Education Adolescent Scientific Access Project, who drew on her own research to discuss faculty responses to student disclosure of sexual assault; and Naila Smith, and advanced doctoral student in the Applied Developmental Psychology program and a Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Fellow, who drew upon some of her own experience and research to discuss when students express distress with regard to campus bias incidents and overall campus climate.
Stats on Students in Crisis
As background, we’re certainly aware that college students often experience high levels of stress, conflict, and personal challenges that can profoundly affect their health, behavior, and academic performance. According to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, which examined data from 125,000 students from more than 150 colleges and universities:
- In the past twelve months, one-third experienced times when they felt so depressed it was difficult to function
- Almost half reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety in the last year
- More than 30 percent of students who sought services for mental health issues reported that they have seriously considered attempting suicide at some point in their lives, 1/3 had taken medications for mental health concerns and almost 10% had been hospitalized for a mental health issue
Not surprisingly, university counseling centers are seeing significant increases in the number of students seeking mental health services and more than a third of counseling centers reported having a waiting list
All of the recommendations and teaching resources are available at http://www.fordham.edu/studentdistressresources. The Center for Ethics Education will periodically update this site and welcomes suggestions and resources from administrators, faculty and students, e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.