College fails Ruderman Family Foundation white paper mental health assessment

by Kyle Mullins | 1/15/19 3:00am

by Arya Kadakia / The Dartmouth

The mental health crisis on college campuses across the nation has come under scrutiny. In a recent study focusing on the eight Ivy League schools, Dartmouth earned an “F” for its leave of absence policies in a new white paper — a paper that seeks to explain an issue and persuade readers of the authors’ philosophy — from the Ruderman Family Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation that advocates for disability rights. The white paper accuses the Ivy League as a whole of “failing to lead the sector of higher education in supporting students with mental health disabilities.”

Of the eight Ivy League schools evaluated by the Foundation, two — Dartmouth and Yale University — earned failing grades. The highest grade, a D+, was assigned to the University of Pennsylvania. Brown University, Columbia University and Princeton University all received Ds and Cornell University and Harvard University both received grades of D-.

The paper scored the schools on 15 metrics, all of which relate to leave of absence policies, and characterizes various components of the schools’ policies as “ambiguous at best and discriminatory at worst.”

At Dartmouth, a medical leave of absence — taken to help a student recuperate from a physical injury or mental condition — is taken in consultation with the undergraduate deans office and the College’s health services. Director of College health service Mark Reed estimated that 65 to 70 students per year take medical leave of absences, about 80 percent of which are for mental health reasons.

Miriam Heyman, a senior program officer at the Foundation and the author of the white paper, said that based on her conversations with experts on leaves of absence before conducting the study, she was not surprised by her findings.

“Colleges around the country are failing at this, and I didn’t think the Ivy [League institutions] would be any different, for better or for worse,” Heyman said. “I hope to inspire the Ivy [League schools] to emerge as leaders on this issue.”

Many of the ratings have to do with the explicit language of Dartmouth’s policies. For example, Dartmouth does not “communicate entitlement to accommodations based on individualized assessment” and thus earned one point out of three for that category, which is the minimum score. The study also asserts that Dartmouth’s leave of absence policy contains no “language against generalization, fear, or stereotype” and notes that there is no explicit mention of housing policy in relation to readmission.

“The policies as they’re written reflect institutional commitments — or lack thereof — to [support] students with mental health disabilities,” Heyman said.

Heyman said that while the study does not find evidence of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it does point to a lack of transparency in the schools’ leave of absence policies. According to Heyman, transparency can act as a “buffer” against discrimination.

“For example, according to the ADA, students with mental health disabilities are entitled to ‘reasonable accommodations’ which could mitigate the need for the leave of absence,” Heyman said. “Things like reduced course load, living off campus or having a single dorm room without a roommate. ... But many of the policies don’t say that students are entitled to these reasonable accommodations under the law.”

Members of the College administration involved in the leave of absence process, however, pushed back against the findings in the study. Associate dean for student academic support services and dean of undergraduate students Brian Reed said the process of determining leaves of absence is highly individualized for each student, which was not reflected in the study, due to the study’s emphasis on written policies.

“I think we really [guide each] student through the process,” Brian Reed said.

Mark Reed added that leave of absence policies are problematic when they take a “cookie-cutter approach,” which he said is not the case at the College.

Brian Reed pointed out that in practice, there is no minimum or maximum length for medical leave, though the student affairs website classifies a student who has had four consecutive leave terms as “inactive.”

“That is really dictated by the student’s readiness to return or their wellness to return,” he said.

He noted that a member of the Class of 1991 emailed him a few days ago asking about readmission.

Mark Reed said that students who have the support of a “treatment team” at home can apply for readmission once the treatment team confirms they are ready to return to school.

“Some students just take a little bit longer,” he said. “If they take a few years, if they take a few terms, that’s okay.”

The College’s deadlines for withdrawal and readmission are cited in the white paper as being too restrictive, but in practice, both Brian and Mark Reed suggested that the deadlines are more nuanced. The former only applies to whether or not grades for the term will be recorded on a student’s transcript — withdrawal can still be initiated after the deadline — and the requirement thats students apply for readmission within 60 days of the start of an academic term is “fudgeable,” according to Brian Reed.

“The 60-day [deadline] is not arbitrary — it’s about allowing the student to do a handful of tasks before enrolling,” he said.

Enrollment in classes, D-Plan changes, visa applications for international students and sorting out housing are all easier to accomplish with at least a 60-day window, according to Brian and Mark Reed.

Senior associate dean of student affairs Liz Agosto ’01 emphasized the desire of the College to provide support for students taking leaves of absence.

“What we’re really asking students to do in these [processes] is to be talking to the people who are their support in order to best be healthy,” Agosto said. “This process isn’t a one-size-fits-all process.”

Heyman said she believes the publicly-available language about leaves of absence is still lacking at the Ivy League schools.

“If, in fact, you’re right that the practices don’t align with the policies as written, make some changes to the policies to communicate the positive practices that already exist,” Heyman said. “We can nitpick about wording and so on and so forth, but I think it would be more productive to say that this is an opportunity for Dartmouth, or any other Ivy League school, to make a few small changes to communicate to the sector of higher education that they’re taking this seriously.”

Brian Reed said that the College could improve the situation for students by creating a centralized hub with consolidated information about leave of absence policies. The information is currently spread across several sources, including the student affairs website and the student handbook, he added.

Officials from the other Ivy League schools suggested that the study’s methodology was flawed.

Will Meek, director of counseling and psychological services at Brown University, wrote in an email that “the methodology on that report is so flawed that no one takes it seriously, and it likely worked against [the Ruderman Foundation’s] interests in drawing attention to it.” Meek declined to comment further.

Columbia University’s health services directed a request for comment to Columbia College, which did not reply to a request for comment. Yale University directed a request for comment to its website about leave of absence policies. Cornell University, Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania did not reply to requests for comment.

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