In the May 1, 2012 issue of The Tech, Barun Singh provides an opinion piece in which he strongly criticizes the administration and the Corporation of the Institute for what he perceives as a series of failures and mismanagement. I am concerned that students reading the op-ed will get the harmful impression that support is lacking at MIT, precisely when we are making a concerted effort to increase awareness of the broad network of support available to students. Moreover, as MIT enters finals period, it would be a tragedy if this misperception prevented anyone from seeking help during these stressful weeks, so I want to correct any misimpressions: if you are feeling overwhelmed or isolated, MIT has resources throughout the community for you.
First, S3 is not “gutted” — far from it. S3 has restructured its staffing schedule, expanded its hours to better fit with student schedules, added a walk-in service, and streamlined protocols. As a result, the deans can spend more time with individual students, and S3 is serving more students than ever, handling 4,500 visits this year compared to 3,600 in the past.
Second, MIT Mental Health is available 24 hours a day. Barun is correct that MIT Medical is not open at night; this change was made because it was averaging less than one visit per night. Instead, this period is now covered by an on-call service that is available 24 hours a day, and that responds within a few minutes. To test this, I called anonymously and got a callback in less than two minutes.
Third, there is a broad network of support available across MIT: in the residences with GRTs, RLAs, RAs, and housemasters; through S3; through REFS for graduate students; and through ODGE student support staff, which has increased in size to better serve the graduate community. So if you are feeling stressed, or need someone to talk with, or just need some guidance, please seek it: there are many places you can turn to at MIT and many people throughout the community with the empathy and expertise to help.
Barun also charges that MIT has disbanded other services that he believes are critical to student well-being, and points to Nightline. Let me provide some facts. Nightline had a dedicated staff to address an important issue — the need for peer support — but it was a 30-year-old model of peer support, which had not adapted to changing modes of interaction for current-day students. It was also very underutilized — although it got many calls from outsiders, it averaged only one or two MIT contacts a week. Together with the leadership of the students running the service, we decided that MIT needed to design a resource more relevant to the needs of current students.
Over the past two years, students have been working to identify a new peer-to-peer approach, and have recommended a new model to me. I have identified the funding needed to support these efforts, and we are in final stages of arranging to launch a new peer-to-peer service, called Student Spill, this fall. So we are adapting to today’s generation of students, and carefully linking the peer-to-peer support systems to medical professionals, rather than sticking with an outdated, underused model.
Although Barun disparages the Dean for Student Life Visiting Committee, in fact the group includes five student affairs professionals from comparable universities, all of whom face the same challenges that we do. These professionals arrived on campus just after the fall suicides, spent a great deal of time reviewing our support resources, and found our system to be strong. While we continue to engage with these and other professionals regularly to share ideas and to learn best practices, our peers believe that we have excellent services in place. Nevertheless, throughout the fall and spring we have been engaged in a “top-to-bottom” review of student services to find ways to better support and better serve all of our students, with particular attention to serving students in moments of their greatest need.
Finally, these changes do not simply happen “top-down.” DSL leadership ensures that students are actively engaged in helping us improve our system. Nearly half the members of the Review Committee on Orientation were students. Students were an essential part of the recent Residential Security Review that recommended not using a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Students have spearheaded the Student Spill initiative and the Active Minds efforts. Students are also providing great advice on other changes, including a wonderful suggestion to create an orientation session on how to recognize signs of depression in friends; we already have a detailed training session for GRTs, which we will be revamping in time for the coming year’s freshman orientation. And students and faculty are at the heart of a current effort to provide a unified portal to support services, which we are implementing through the MITogether campaign. Posters for this effort have been up around campus this spring, and the broader campaign will be launched in the coming months.
I have been at MIT for nearly four decades, but my first year as Chancellor has given me a new perspective on just how strong our community is. Every day I see students, faculty, and staff come together from across the Institute to help one another in countless ways. If the pressures in your life seem overwhelming, know that you do not need to handle them alone. Even the most accomplished professors have had moments in their lives when they had to reach out for help. The way we know we are a community is that we care for each other, so please don’t hesitate to ask for what you need.
Eric Grimson PhD ’80 is MIT’s Chancellor.