Not even the pass/D/fail option could have saved the University in the Ruderman Family Foundation’s study of Ivy League mental health policies.
The study report — titled — gave the University a “D” and claimed that the University’s policies pertaining to leave of absence were often unclear and, at worst, discriminatory. The paper focused on the leave of absence policies for each Ivy League school and argued that the language of the policies leads to discrimination against students.
The highest grade awarded went to the University of Pennsylvania, which received a D+. Brown and Columbia also received Ds, Cornell and Harvard were both awarded D-, while Yale and Dartmouth both received Fs.
According to an email to The Daily Princetonian from University spokesperson Ben Chang, the University disputes many of the findings in the paper, stating that the report mischaracterizes the University’s policies.
Senior Program Officer of the Ruderman Foundation Miriam Heyman, who authored the report, said that the paper’s purpose was to catalyze change within the Ivy League. She hopes that the eight universities can be models of mental health policy for colleges across the country.
“There’s a real opportunity for leadership,” Heyman said. “Some of the changes I recommend I understand are complex for institutions as large as Princeton to make, but I also think that some of them are relatively straightforward and yet would go a long way in communicating Princeton’s commitment to supporting [...] students with mental health disabilities.”
The Ruderman Family Foundation is an organization “guided by Jewish values,” describing itself on its as a “non-partisan strategic catalyst in cooperation with government, private sectors, civil society, and philanthropies.” The organization’s goals include advocating for the inclusion of people with disabilities and strengthening the relationship between the American and Israeli Jewish communities.
The report used a series of 15 criteria assessing different universities’ leave of absence policies. Each criterion received a score from one to three points, with three points being most favorable. After each of the 15 indicators was scored, the University received a total score of 29 out of 45 possible points, giving the University a 64/100, equivalent to a D grade.
cited by the 2018 Spring report from the American College Health Association found that 41.90 percent of undergraduate students have “felt so depressed within the past twelve months that it was difficult to function,” and that 12.1 percent of students have “seriously considered suicide” during the same time period.
Even though mental health disabilities on college campuses are widespread, the Ruderman report argues that support from colleges is “woefully inadequate.”
However, University spokesperson Ben Chang wrote that the article “misstates our policies, mischaracterizes how they are applied, and ignores the holistic approach the University takes to assist our students in these situations.”
Chang noted multiple times that the University’s policies had been reviewed and approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Heyman said she believes the University can improve its leave of absence policy by creating a liason for the student taking a leave of absence. The liaison’s job would be to keep the student connected to the school while the student would be away.
“This is sort of an easy thing for a school to stick in there. There aren’t … any legal concerns that would prevent the school from putting that into their policy,” Heyman said. “Providing a name of a contact person is communicating that [the] student, even though they’re at home for the semester, is still a student of the school and entitled to school-based support.”
However, in his email to the ‘Prince,’ Chang pointed out that University policy does specify a person to speak to for leaves of absence, contrary to the paper’s claim that “the leave of absence policies do not specify a liason or contact person.”
Heyman defended her paper’s assertion by countering that the language on the website was still ambiguous as to whether or not the residential college dean could continue to be consulted throughout the duration of a student’s leave.
Chang also disputed the paper’s inference that the University’s policy states a maximum number of leaves a student is allowed to take.
The paper gave that particular criterion a score of one, citing a section of University which states, “A student who has taken three leaves from the University, including any academic required withdrawal or mandatory leave of absence, or who has taken a leave of absence in excess of three years, may no longer be eligible for the regular reinstatement process.”
Chang disputed the implication that the language of the policy sets a strict maximum.
“Contrary to the report’s suggestion, Princeton’s policy does not state a maximum duration or maximum number of leaves,” Chang wrote in an email statement to the ‘Prince.’
“Rather, it states that after three leaves or a leave in excess of three years, the student should petition the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing for readmission.”
The next sentence after the excerpt cited by Heyman , “A student in these circumstances who wishes to return to Princeton should petition for readmission by the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing.”
The University also criticized the paper for not reaching out to the University prior to its publication.
Heyman claims she intentionally did not reach out, saying that the perspectives of University administrators, students, and how policies play out in practice were “beyond the scope of this paper.”
“The data for this paper are the policies themselves, what is written on the school’s website,” Heyman said.
Undergraduate Student Government President Rachel Yee ’19 immediately notified Dean Fowler and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Calvin Chin when she saw the Cornell article on the report. The report was sent to her by a fellow student.
“My initial reaction to the report was confusion, because from what I’ve seen from my experiences with the Ivy League mental health conference I wouldn’t have given Princeton a D,” Yee said. “Relative to the other Ivies, I thought Princeton would have scored a bit higher.”
Yee has made mental health advocacy a key part of her platform and tenure as president. Yee said the report belies the effort taken by the administration over the last few years to improve leave of absence policy.
“[The University] has tried to make it as seamless and as easy of a process as possible,” Yee said. “I come down pretty harshly on the administration sometimes, but in this particular regard, what I have seen is the University works very hard that this is a process that is not traumatic for any student.”
Yee called Heyman’s choice not to contact any of the schools she wrote about “irresponsible” and said she should have widened the scope of her research before coming to such a definitive conclusion.
“It’s a damning report to put out without having other perspectives other than just what is written down,” Yee said.
To further accommodate students who seek to take time away from the University, the administration launched a guiding students through the process of taking a gap year, taking a year off from the University, and what logistics and support are available.
“There are actual efforts to make this process a lot more transparent,” Yee said.