Student mental health takes center stage at senate meeting

A panel discussed student mental health and well being; Garth Saloner, dean of the Graduate School of Business gave a presentation on its students, faculty, programs and new campus; and President Hennessy announced that Stanford has begun exploring ways to reverse a troubling trend – decreasing student interest in majoring in the humanities.

Photos by L.A. Cicero Ira Friedman

Ira Friedman, director of Vaden Health Center

At the start a panel presentation on student mental health at yesterday's Faculty Senate meeting, Ira Friedman, director of Vaden Health Center, said Stanford and the nation were entering the second decade of increasing concern on the topic.

"Even today,  we're seeing more press coverage of stressed-out students from a national survey," Friedman said, speaking at the Thursday meeting.

"Let us keep in mind, however, that being on a college campus is a protective factor, because we know that students on a campus are actually better off in all dimensions of well being and health than their age-matched peers who are not attending college. So there's good news as well as bad news."

In recent years, Stanford has expanded its psychological services and increased community support for graduate students, he said.

Friedman said Stanford is concerned about two very distinct groups of students: a relatively small number who have significant mental health problems that existed before they arrived or began emerging at Stanford; and the broad spectrum of students who are doing pretty well and, at the same time, are confronting challenges as they negotiate the stresses in their personal and academic lives.

Dr. Peter Kao, a member of the university's oversight committee on student mental health and well being, and an associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine, said he is most interested in fostering "mental wellness" on campus.

"How do we adjust our resilience and bolster our resilience so we can pull people back from the brink and we can all be more creative and productive?" he asked.

Kao, now in his third year as a resident fellow at Castano House, an upperclass dorm in Manzanita Park, said he uses resident assistants – student staff selected for their leadership abilities, empathy and ability to connect with peers – as "early detectors" of students who are in distress. Then, he relies on the university's "very robust" network of resources, including counselors at Vaden, to provide the help they need.

ASSU President Angelina Cardona said an anonymous letter she received last year from a student helped sum up the feelings of loneliness and isolation some students experience on campus.

She read a passage from the letter: "I think I can be fun sometimes, and I sure know a lot of people, but I don't have any real friends…I want someone to feel comfortable enough around me, or to think that I'm fun enough, that they don't feel weird about randomly getting in touch … I feel socially awkward and out-of-place and community-less."

Cardona said the "Stanford duck syndrome" – the idea that students are calm and serene on the surface, but underneath are paddling like crazy to stay afloat and keep up the perception that everything is OK – is alive and well on campus.

"The more that I talk to my peers the more I realize that generally, everyone is overwhelmed here," she said. "They're overstressed. I think that goes with being at the academic institution of the caliber that we have, and I think it goes with the generational culture that we have as well. But the more I immerse myself in this topic, the more that it becomes a theme at our campus, I think that it's clear there is a lot to be done."

Garth Saloner

Garth Saloner, dean of the Graduate School of Business

The GSB has begun moving into its new home

During another presentation at the meeting, Garth Saloner, who became dean of the Graduate School of Business in September of 2009, described its MBA program as "a very high-touch immersion experience."

In a slide presentation, he showed a map of the new Knight Management Center, which has eight academic buildings and a dining pavilion. So far, four buildings have opened and the first classes were held there Jan. 6. Construction is expected to be completed in the spring.

The new campus includes Cemex Auditorium, a 600-seat venue that will host speakers and events from all over campus, replacing Kresge Auditorium, which was torn down to make way for a new Law School building.

Currently, the Business School has 799 students enrolled in its MBA Program; 56 students enrolled in its Sloan Master's Program and 94 students in its PhD Program.

Saloner said more than 100 of those MBA students are pursuing dual and joint degrees, up from 60 in five years ago. They are crisscrossing Stanford to take classes in the School of Earth Sciences, the School of Education, the Law School, the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Medicine.

Among those MBA students are 43 pursuing an MBA and a master's degree in environment and resources; 40 pursuing an MBA and a master's in education; 15 pursuing an MBA and a law degree; 11 pursuing an MBA and a master's in public policy; and eight students pursuing an MBA and a medical degree.

"That's a very good trend and one we are encouraging," Saloner said.

Combating the growing lack of interest in the humanities

In a brief announcement at the beginning of the meeting, President John Hennessy said he and Provost John Etchemendy have become increasingly concerned about the decreasing interest of students – at Stanford and across the country – who major or take courses in the humanities.

"We have started a number of conservations across the university to ask what we at Stanford could do to reverse it," Hennessy said.

In those conversations, Hennessy said five possible ideas have emerged: rethinking the Introduction to the Humanities Program; attracting more students to humanities courses above and beyond meeting the general education requirements; providing better guidance and information to students about future careers after earning a humanities degree; attracting more students to a traditional liberal arts degree focusing on majors in the humanities; and enhancing the PhD program to prepare graduates for a wider set of careers outside academia.

"We are at the beginning of a process to try to discuss with faculty and colleagues across the university what Stanford could do to try to combat what is a growing lack of interest in the humanities among our students, but also help work with our colleagues across the country on this," Hennessy said.

"At this point, all I wanted my colleagues to know was that we were starting these discussions, beginning a process that will go over some period of time, asking what we can do to reignite the exuberance and incredible opportunities that exist and get our students to understand those opportunities."

Minutes available next week

The full minutes of the meeting, including the question-and-answer sessions that followed the presentations, will be available next week on the senate's website.

The next senate meeting will be held Feb. 17.