A private, residential university such as Lawrence also needs to be able to provide for the basic needs of its students before it can even consider what classes to offer, what sports teams to endow and what types of extracurricular programs to provide. Therefore, a school like Lawrence will have a nurse’s office, a dining hall, running water and bathrooms for its students living there full-time, and ensure that each of these services should be of good and consistent quality.
The university also has a limit to which they can protect someone’s wellbeing. For example, the university cannot stop people from smoking, drinking or having unprotected sex even though these things carry certain safety risks. Their responsibly is to provide help when there is a serious health crisis like alcohol poisoning, physical injury or severe illnesses. If a student wants to avoid long term risks, it is up to them to quit smoking, put the bottle down, wear a helmet or use protection.
Campuses today face the growing problem of mental health. It is a particularly tricky problem because it can occur even when the basic health and wellness needs of the students are met. A school might have a great dining hall, top-notch residence halls and a full-time doctor, yet still find that its students suffer from growing mental health problems.
College administrations are beginning to recognize the close relationship between mental and physical wellbeing, and are consequently treating them with equal importance.
Meanwhile, college students everywhere—including at Lawrence—are now coming out and saying that toxic social climates—rife with sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination—are the root of anxiety and depression, serious mental health concerns that should not be taken lightly.
There is a philosophical dilemma the administration must face: If the toxic social climate really is harming the mental health of students on campus, and the administration has an obligation to ensure the mental health of its students, what is the administration supposed to do?
To ask what the university can do and should do, it must first address what it cannot do and should not do. Clearly, the administration cannot simply force people to be less prejudiced. It cannot force people to refrain from offensive jokes or say ignorant things on Facebook and Yik Yak, or even agree with the prejudice intrinsic to some academic disciplines.
The only time it really can and should intervene is when a statement or person poses a significant threat to somebody’s wellbeing, be it physical violence or pointed verbal abuse and emotional abuse.
Yet, the administration seems to claim that it is that arbiter. By establishing things like bias incident reporting system and mandating sensitivity training for staff and faculty, the administration implicitly claims it is capable of determining if instances of prejudice are a threat to students’ mental health. However, our student body has in effect demanded that the administration take a more active role in addressing prejudice.
The administration’s step to bolster counseling services should be the furthest extent that it can help students cope with the toxic social environment here. By doing so, it acknowledges the expertise of guidance counselors in helping students cope with whatever issues they may face here and hands off the challenge of helping students cope to people who are professionals in such a field.
However, should the administration really be taking the lead in resolving issues of prejudice at Lawrence? You would not ask the administration to solve your friend’s drinking problem or to convince them to quit smoking. The administration can provide some tools, but ultimately those are issues an individual has to face on their own.
Likewise, our prejudices are issues that we have to face on our own. It is up to us as individuals to help ourselves and help each other address these issues. It is time to claim ownership of our prejudices and stop relying on grown-ups to solve them for us. They cannot fix our prejudices and to claim to do so is dishonest and unproductive. We are the grown-ups now. We have to fix this ourselves.