Can WMU do more to address the student mental health crisis?

At a Board of Trustees meeting, the WMU-AAUP urges greater attention to student mental health and the faculty professionals who provide mental health services

Delivered by WMU-AAUP President, Prof. Carol Weideman
December 13, 2019

Thank you for this time to speak. The WMU-AAUP is a faculty voice that isn’t always easy to hear. I understand that it may seem like we consistently identify problems, but it is our job to protect the contractual agreement that was signed between the BOT, administration, and our board appointed faculty. By doing this, it creates a safe place where we can challenge each other, and ultimately have a stronger institution.

First and foremost, I’m proud to be a faculty member of WMU, ranked #1 in the top 10 best Hidden Gems of public universities in the US. We will be celebrating the next group of graduates this upcoming Saturday, and I’m looking forward to seeing the fabulous smiles, the jubilation, selfies, and as always, the shoes.

In the short time I have for my remarks, I’d like to raise an important concern. In a meaningful discussion with President Montgomery last week, the WMU-AAUP VP, Mark St. Martin and I raised our concerns about the current status of student counseling needs and transparency between the administration and the university community as a whole. I can speak more about the transparency conversation at a later date; for now, I’ll focus on the mental health/counseling needs.

This was not an unfamiliar topic with President Montgomery, and so we were able to freely express the basis of why we brought the topic of counseling needs and faculty security to our meeting. President Montgomery understands the mental health concerns we are facing, and Mark and I felt the discussion was lively and heartfelt. Just a few days before our meeting, the Kalamazoo Gazette featured an article entitled “Student need for counseling surges.”, with the subtitle “More college kids are turning to schools for help with their mental health, and schools are struggling to meet demand.” (December 1, 2019.) This article outlined the disparity between need and available resources across many university campuses. WMU is not alone with trying to find ways to counter the number of students needing mental health treatment, and we understand the administration is working on this challenge.

This is some specific data I will share regarding the mental health status of college students from a national data set. There is a distinct trend in the increase in percentages of students experiencing overwhelming anxiety (30.7% last 2 weeks, 14.1% 30 days) and felt so depressed that it was difficult to function (17.5% last 2 weeks, 8.9% last 30 days). There also is an increase in students coming to campus with diagnosed mental health issues. In this same report, 24% of students indicate diagnosis or treatment by a professional due to anxiety and 20% with depression, and 12.3% reporting panic attacks within the past 12 months. Approximately 53% of students reported that their academic responsibilities are very difficult to handle. These are just a snapshot from the undergraduate data from the Spring 2019 American College of Health Association National College Health Assessment. Our university last participated in this assessment in 2015, and the data is an important resource for our programmatic planning.

With the development of Think Big, there was a clear ‘new purpose for higher education in society’, and that is wellness. The presenters at the fall Town Halls provided many infographs, and one that stood out to me was the placement of mental health as the foundation. As stated on the wmich.edu/thinkbig website, “Wellness combines with a strong mind and becomes central to our purpose.”

As we enter 2020, we need to consider how we will move forward with providing sufficient mental health care for our students as well as providing the excellent staff we currently have with positions that have stability.

First question: Do we have enough counselors? The International Association of Counseling Services recommends one therapist for every 1,000 – 1,500 students (https://iacsinc.org/staff-to-student-ratios/). The Fall 2019 Census data indicates 21,470 students, from the Sindecuse directory, it appears we have 10 counselors and one intake staff. Only one of those 10 holds a Ph.D and is the only licensed psychologist in the center. Our counselor/student ratio is dismal compared to the accepted recommendations. As a reference point, GVSU has 10 PhD level licensed psychologists (in addition to their master level counselors).

Second question: What is our mental health resource plan for Think Big and are mental health professionals on the planning team? If so, who? The resource plan that is available online is the WMU Healthy Campus 2020 Student Mental Health Action Plan. Two objectives are identified: the first to increase utilization of mental health resources and the second to increase resiliency. This plan appears to be developed on the proportion of students who have same day appointments vs improving the quality of mental health resources. We must first act to ensure we have the professionals to take care of these students. Second, we must ensure we take care of those who take care of our students.

Having a solid team of tenure track counselors, who don’t have to constantly worry whether they have a job next year or not, that can provide students consistent mental health treatment throughout the academic career is what can and should set us apart. Students are coming to campus with more mental health concerns, and treatment consistency is what they seek. Having counseling appointments with the same professional allows a connection to be formed which research shows is the biggest factor in therapeutic change, diminishes the need to reexplain their history and presenting concerns, and provides the opportunity for intensive work.

Currently, we have a crisis where the majority of counselors are on term appointments, which is defined as “appointments are for one-year periods and are renewable annually for up to five (5) consecutive years.” With mental health support the foundation of the Think Big initiative, we raise the need for stability for the Counseling Services faculty. It’s well understood that employees who are risk of losing their jobs show higher perceived stress, anxiety, depression, and negative feelings and lower levels of positive feelings compared to employees not at risk of losing their jobs. People with job insecurity also feel less belonging and lower ties with the working population. This is what many of our counselors face on a yearly basis.

The challenge the WMU-AAUP is facing is how to encourage the administration to recognize the precarious position these individuals are in. We stand in the faith that the BoT and WMU administration believe in shared governance and academic freedom. Providing the pathway to tenure which is ensured in the 2017-2020 agreement will provide these individuals to fully participate, contribute, and better our university. The union urges the administration to work with the faculty to tackle the reality that it’s time to give our counselors the support they need to fully support our students. Mark stated it well when he said “We have to take care of the people who are taking care of our students.”

Again, I appreciate the opportunity to share this message from the bargaining unit.

(Image above from https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/emotional-crisis)

Why the WMU-AAUP continues to thrive in the face of incredible challenges

Despite ongoing legislative attempts to throttle collective bargaining efforts by making it harder for unions to maintain robust membership, WMU faculty overwhelmingly continue to support the WMU-AAUP. In fact, though some form of so-called “right to work” laws have been in place in Michigan since 2013, 90% of eligible WMU faculty continue to support the union as full dues-paying members.

As some collective bargaining units across the nation have struggled to maintain membership in the face of increasing anti-union challenges, our union membership numbers are especially impressive. Out of a total of about 900 eligible faculty, only 45 tenure-track and 11 term faculty have committed to opting out. While we continue to reach out to to a handful of additional WMU faculty who have not yet submitted cards, the overall numbers are remarkably positive. Again, 90% of WMU faculty continue to fully support the Chapter as dues payers despite explicit attempts to dilute our solidarity.

No doubt this success is due, in part, to the WMU-AAUP’s implementation of a comprehensive member outreach plan in recent years designed to respond to the latest anti-union threats. This plan has included direct, intensive outreach to new faculty, including over the summer, and ongoing targeted communications throughout the year in the form of letters, phone calls, office visits, and emails. In addition to this painstaking work by WMU-AAUP staff and officers, AAUP department representatives (Association Council members) are on the front lines with respect to engaging with colleagues who have questions about membership, or somehow simply forgot to submit their dues card.

Our member outreach plan, combined with plain old elbow grease, is surely part of the secret to the Chapter’s impressive success, but the deeper explanation is likely much simpler: the WMU-AAUP’s impressive record of fighting for fair salaries and decent benefits, of doggedly standing up for faculty rights, and of offering critical guidance through a maze of bewildering processes, especially the rocky shoals of tenure and promotion.

In short, WMU faculty have a deeply rooted ethos of supporting our collective bargaining unit because of the value it brings to our individual and collective professional lives. As higher education withstands wave after wave of insult and assault, including threats to the basic viability of the professoriate, we invite you take a moment to celebrate the fact that WMU faculty are standing strong. We are, in fact, more united than ever in our commitment to fight for what is right and fair as we head into another negotiating season.

The invisible labor of WMU professors: Three lessons from your own workload stories

Probably the most striking conclusion of the workload comments faculty have shared with the WMU-AAUP this semester is that, when it comes to research, teaching, and service, we professors are in the best position to tell our own stories. In fact, in sharing the interesting, sometimes idiosyncratic, details of their work responsibilities, faculty have described feeling isolated and misunderstood, not just by administrators, but sometimes even by faculty colleagues.

For example, one faculty member observed that “there seems to be an assumption that because I have a heavy teaching load that I must not care about scholarship, but I never stopped writing and publishing articles even though I’m given almost no time to do it.” Conversely, another professor shared that he is almost afraid to talk about how low his official teaching load is with colleagues outside his department because “it gives people the wrong idea. The fact that my official teaching credits are low doesn’t do justice to how much time I’m actually required to spend working with individual graduate students.”

Other faculty described frustrations about how research, scholarship and creative activity are recognized and valued. As one professor explained, “Scholarship in my field takes time and my department understands this. But for people in departments that emphasize lots of co-authored articles rather than books, it must look like I’m just sitting on my ass.” Another faculty member emphasized the painstaking process of securing and managing external grants, and of how this “basically becomes an entire job unto itself, in addition to the actual research the grant is supposed to fund.”

Not surprisingly, service was another area about which faculty expressed frustration, suggesting that too much of this work was rendered invisible by “bean counting administrators.” One professor described the increased pressure he’s felt over the years as his department’s faculty numbers have dwindled. “At the same time, the service demands have gone up,” he said. “There seems to be no recognition that fewer faculty members are being asked to do more and more.” Another faculty member explained that much of what claims her time seems to fall outside the recognized workload parameters, for example, “Every single week a handful of students stop in for informal advising discussions. I want to help them, but they aren’t even ‘my’ students. Am I supposed to turn them away?”

Though no single, overarching theme emerged from the workload stories shared with the WMU-AAUP, three were repeated enough to serve as cautionary lessons.

  • First, there is the recognition that the work faculty do across colleges varies, sometimes dramatically, and that no numerical system can fully do justice to this diversity.
  • Second, the best experts for determining what counts as meaningful research, teaching and service work in a given field are to be found in that field; WMU faculty are the best experts with respect to workload evaluations.
  • Third, more discussion is needed among faculty across departments and colleges to better understand and appreciate the diverse value we bring to WMU. Now, if only we could find the time!

Below are additional examples of labor that faculty feel may be misunderstood or rendered invisible. What did we miss?

– writing, customizing, and uploading student reference letters for graduate schools, professional programs, and academic employment

– engaging in industry consulting work that may be both expected and appropriate to one’s academic role

– informal academic and personal advising of undergraduate students, especially those who arrive underprepared

– driving time to teach courses at WMU distance learning sites, especially in the winter

– serving on diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially for faculty of color

– remaining current in one’s academic discipline, especially when one’s field is international in scope

– dealing with the ongoing demands of accreditation reports and other documentation

– completing a myriad of WMU online trainings, for example, cyber security and bullying

– direct individual supervision of students, especially graduate students, in required internship or performance activities

– completing time-consuming academic program review documentation as periodically required by administration, especially when this work has no apparent consequences

– piecing together small funding opportunities for routine academic work in the absence of sufficient support for conference and research travel (especially when international)

– completing professional activity reports, especially when one’s accomplishments do not fit neatly into its categories

– work done for the Lee Honors College, for example, scholarships, thesis committees, and serving as speakers

– participating in curricular overhauls, for example, essential studies

– facilitating the needs of increasing numbers of students who require special accommodations, for example, extra exam time

– assisting with departmental, college, and university recruitment efforts, e.g., spending time with prospective students and their families

– multiple (rather than streamlined) progress (and midterm grade) reporting for undergraduate students, for example, those on probation

If you haven’t yet had a chance to share your workload story with us, please send it!

Note: Faculty find much of this work to be both important and satisfying, but wish that it were better factored in during formal and informal assessments of their overall contributions. Also, some details have been altered to preserve anonymity.

How is investment in core academics part of WMU’s plan to address enrollment declines?

WMU’s enrollment has been in decline for years, due partly to predictable demographic shifts, and WMU is responding with a marketing initiative to make the university more attractive to a shrinking group of traditionally-aged prospective students. It’s no surprise that, amid the generation of new slogans, enhanced residence halls, and other student enticements, faculty are asking questions about the university’s investment in its core academic mission. For example:

  • How is the ongoing shift away from full-time tenure track faculty toward poorly paid part-time instructors consistent with WMU’s promise to provide a world-class education?
  • Is WMU’s investment in its “research-intensive” status sufficient to help prospective students distinguish WMU from community colleges and other, more affordable, four-year institutions?
  • Will core university basics, including traditional disciplines and general education, be sacrificed in order to feed trendier majors?
  • Will significant, ongoing investments be made in academic advisors, librarians, counselors, and academic student success programs to help students progress in WMU’s relatively open enrollment environment?

There are, of course, more general questions underlying worries about universities’ value commitments in the midst of increasingly assertive efforts to identify and draw in more students. For example:

  • How committed is the university to investing in quality over time, enhancing the institution’s long term reputation for excellence, rather than quick fixes?
  • Given that its employees — faculty and staff — distinguish a university as special, what investment will be made in actual people, above and beyond funds spent on facilities and marketing materials?
  • How does the institutions see its responsibility to respond to campus climate issues, for example, concerns about racial and gender equity, as consistent with its efforts to attract more students?

Though “austerity” is not a word most universities use to describe their response to enrollment declines, and the more or less predictable budget contractions that accompany them, many faculty and staff feel the threat of austerity in the air. With that in mind, it is reassuring when a university makes proactive, concerted efforts to become more appealing to students. But, for many faculty members, after years of watching our academic departments shrink and wither through attrition and disinvestment, it is understandable if we have serious concerns about investment in core academics.

Will faculty lines continue to melt away as state-of-the-art buildings are erected and new billboards and tv commercials appear? Will faculty and staff be left to foot the bill for glitzy marketing strategies that may feel good in the moment but have little long-term impact? Whether we will choose to see this latest chapter of enrollment decline as an opportunity to substantively invest in the people — students, faculty and staff — at the heart of our core academic mission remains to be seen.

2020 WMU-AAUP negotiation team selected

The WMU-AAUP is proud to present our 2020 negotiation team:

Robert White, chief negotiator, School of Music
Regina Garza Mitchell, Educational Leadership, Research and Technology
Andrew Hennlich, Frostic School of Art
Michael G. Miller, Human Performance and Health Education
Glinda Rawls, Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology

Given the importance of assembling a dedicated, prepared, and effective negotiating team, the WMU-AAUP scrupulously follows a carefully delineated selection process (see below). These steps are meant to maximize faculty members’ opportunity to participate, while also respecting the need to compose a team with complementary strengths.

The result of this year’s process was a clear endorsement by the Executive Committee of the five 2020 members listed above, a selection unanimously upheld on Friday by a vote of the Association Council. We want to express our appreciation to all of this year’s nominees, including those not selected, as we pull together in solidarity to support Bob, Regina, Andrew, Michael, and Glinda.

Steps for selecting the team:

  • In September, a call for nominees was sent to the entire bargaining-unit faculty; members could self-nominate or nominate colleagues.
  • In October and November, the Executive Committee (comprised, according to our bylaws, of representatives from all of WMU’s colleges), interviewed nominees who had confirmed their willingness to serve on the team.
  • After all candidates were interviewed, there was in-depth discussion among Executive Committee members of candidates’ individual strengths, as well as how those strengths might best combine to create a formidable team.
  • Multiple votes were taken by the Executive Committee, with additional opportunities for discussion, resulting in a clear endorsement of the 2020 members.
  • The Executive Committee’s recommendations were unanimously approved by the Association Council on Nov. 15.

We invite anyone with an interest in participating in future negotiations, or with additional questions about the selection process, to contact us at staff@wmuaaup.net or give us a call. Together we are stronger!

How committed is our campus to shared governance? An AAUP questionnaire lets you do a quick assessment.

Based on your experience, how well is WMU doing at enacting the principles of shared governance? See any areas of improvement or cause for concern? Feel free to share your thoughts with the WMU-AAUP at staff@wmuaaup.net or give us a call.

Climate for Governance

Do the trustees, the administration, and the faculty model collegiality, respect, tolerance and civility towards other members of the campus community and each other?

Are negotiations and communications among university constituents open and carried out in good faith and in an atmosphere of trust?

Institutional Communication

Does consultation by the administration with faculty leadership allow time and a mechanism for leadership to consult with their constituents before offering recommendations?

Does the faculty as a whole, in addition to faculty representatives, have timely access to information necessary for faculty members to give input into governance processes?

The Board’s Role

Do members of the governing board have appropriate individual qualifications with regard to education and experience?

Is the board inappropriately involved in the day‐to‐ day operations of the institution?

Do board members inform themselves on governance issues by keeping up with the literature and participating in training opportunities and meetings of the Association of Governing Boards or the AAUP?

Does the board respect and support the facultyʹs traditional role in institutional governance?

The complete document is here.

How successful are we at WMU at expressing our research-intensive values?

How many undergraduate students know the difference between a research-intensive university and one that is overwhelmingly teaching-focused? Even if students can recite some of the differences, how many of them even care? Further, to what extent are faculty members in touch with the reality of how well our university actually measures up to the values and mission associated with being research-intensive?

At universities like WMU that identify and market themselves as both research-intensive and focused on undergraduate education, these may be especially important issues to grapple with. After all, if we, ourselves, are not clear about how well our institution fulfills its claims to be research-intensive, we can’t help students appreciate this quality. As we reflect, then, here are a few reminders of some criteria generally associated with being research-intensive.

Such universities:

  • invest in faculty scholars and researchers, providing workloads, facilities and other resources (e.g., library, equipment, grant preparation, and travel funding) that facilitate and nourish such activity
  • place a high value on attracting and supporting promising graduate students across a broad range of disciplines; while such students may directly contribute to the teaching mission, their identities as scholars is primary
  • facilitate and encourage individual faculty efforts to incorporate their research into their teaching by, for example, providing grants and release time
  • foster and maintain specialized undergraduate majors and internships, instead of supporting only the most popular, fashionable ones
  • eliminate institutional roadblocks that impede interdisciplinary collaboration, for example, team-teaching or joint research projects

When considering our university, how would you respond to these questions? What other criteria are critical for assessing a university’s designation as research-intensive in ways that might matter most to faculty and students? And what other questions should we be considering when we ponder the future identity of our university as research or teaching-focused?