On Sunday, March 17, at 7:50 p.m., Dean of Student Todd Adams sent some “good thoughts” to a student body with whom he is clearly out of touch. His statement functioned to normalize student suffering and perpetuate a harmful narrative against which Northwestern students are currently organizing. He’s directed students to services that are widely known to be stretched to capacity, and he’s failed to recognize the social circumstances that make NU especially harmful to racialized, gender-marginalized, disabled, low-income and first-generation students. Students deserve to know that our struggles should not be normal; they arise from institutional neglect and structural ineptitude. The following is a collective statement against the harmful rhetoric purported by Northwestern University’s higher administration. Our administration values student productivity over health, legitimizes the neglect of student well-being in pursuit of academic performance and perpetuates neoliberal myths that make individual students responsible for offsetting structural shortcomings.
Dear Todd Adams,
The conditions we endure at this university are not “normal”; saying that they are is utterly disheartening and actively harmful. We as a student body are already under the impression that our suffering is acceptable – that’s the problem with Northwestern’s institutional culture. In this response, we illustrate how rhetoric that normalizes our stress both trivializes the conditions that are killing us and obscures the specific distress borne by underrepresented student populations. This rhetoric erases the violence that occurs when students must forfeit fulfillment of basic needs in order to succeed at Northwestern.
It is well-understood that during finals week (and throughout the year) many of our peers do not sleep, shower or eat as regularly as necessary. There is a reason many students see a severe dip in immunity around midterms and finals season: Chronic stress damages our physiological well-being. We classify this stress as chronic quite intentionally. While acute stress can prime the body with adaptive modifications to help us succeed, chronic stress inhibits our immune system and makes us vulnerable to disease. The stress one experiences at Northwestern can be classified as chronic, because it is unrelenting. Many of us have experienced professors who preface their courses with statements that “most of [us] will not pass.” Some students express their struggle with course expectations to professors only to meet ridicule, dismissal, or referral to insufficient campus resources. When we normalize “struggle,” we force students to accept substandard pedagogy (if the majority of your students fail to grasp your material, the problem is more likely in your instruction – not your students) and breed conditions where students suffer both self-inflicted and external neglect.
Those who experience marginalization within this campus culture – who are balancing jobs, familial responsibilities, health problems, course work, extracurriculars, relationships and trying to navigate an unclear structure of power and privilege – are at particular risk for crisis. University messaging such as “AND is in Our DNA” naturalizes an environment that overworks both undergraduate and graduate students, erasing the harmful impacts of such conditions. This is especially harmful to students that are already juggling too much “AND” and too little support. Across campus, students are keeping up with highly difficult, fast-paced courses AND working jobs to support themselves AND sending money back home to support families AND over-exerting to try to compensate for ableism, racism, cisheterosexism AND keeping their heads above the deep waters of chronic stress and trauma. During the days following March 16, for example, students had to finish papers and exams in the aftermath of both local and international hate crimes, as well as a sexual assault on campus. The University may believe its messaging celebrates under-supported students’ extreme perseverance, but, in practice, this encourages toxic behavior. Many of us already understand that the odds are stacked against us, and we work against them until we’ve burned our bodies to ash. Fatigued, we stare down the terrifying fact that this constant exhaustion is our “normal." Telling us to expect these conditions to stretch into perpetuity sends us into crisis. When you tell us that our crises are “normal," you snuff out our last glimpse of hope that we can survive this institution, or the ones to follow.
When we seek help, which you also assure us is “normal,” we cannot access it. AccessibleNU (ANU), one of the first places to which almost every syllabus directs students for their access needs, is desperately lacking resources, with personnel especially in need of office space to handle their abundant tasks. Many students at the intersections of physical/mental disability and poverty are under the impression that ANU can only help those with formally diagnosed conditions (hint for student readers: This isn’t necessarily true! ANU works on a case-by-case basis to provide support). This idea presents a barrier for them, and thus financial restrictions preclude some students from even trying to access the accommodations they need. Further, doctor’s notes – which are required by most professors for absences, extensions, and other flexibility – are fundamentally inaccessible, especially in a society without universal healthcare. Financially, many can’t afford to go to the doctor. Physically and mentally, many disabled and mentally ill students are unable to get themselves out of bed, let alone to the doctor’s office. Furthermore, Student Enrichment Services (SES), one of the few resources able to problem-solve with poor students to help them navigate their college experience, is likewise understaffed, underfunded, and physically difficult to find.
Finally, it is irresponsible and dangerous to point to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) as one of the few resources available to students struggling with mental health, as many of us know from experience that it is yet again understaffed & underfunded. Students have been fighting to change this situation for years and have been consistently met with inaction. Funneling more students, oftentimes mid-crisis, into a derelict system risks lives, first and foremost, and it results in longer waitlists and referrals to inaccessible outside care. Thus, referring students to CAPS without properly equipping CAPS to meet student demands is not only useless but violent. If you are racialized and seek culturally-literate care, you will have to wait for one of three counselors who are already overburdened with a disproportionate amount of clients. Once referred out, you will probably not receive appropriate follow-up, even if you have been seen in crisis; no one will check in to see if you survived. To make matters worse, there is only one patient advocate on staff who can help you understand the piling costs of your survival, and that’s if you’re even aware of her existence. We don't want to be directed to these offices until they are actually prepared to give ALL of us the care we need. As of March 29, 2019, Northwestern has yet to take substantial action to bolster the availability and accessibility of these support systems, but you and your colleagues continue to reference them in “caring” emails.
Your lack of structural support proves that your “care” is performative. To ignore the structural deficiencies of this university is to exacerbate inequality. You increasingly admit students who need support mentally, physically, and financially; you must care for them accordingly. Over 20% of this student body is Pell Grant-eligible as a result of the University’s own initiative – this means that the University needs to think with more economic sensitivity about how to appropriately act on the financial marginalization of its students, especially as socioeconomic class intersects with race, disability and mental health.
Students require that this university’s higher administration acknowledge their culpability for our harmful campus culture; a culture that results in over-exhaustion and resultant psychological fatigue. Your reference to “standards you have set for yourself” is a blatant attempt to individualize student exhaustion and suffering. This framing abides by the unrealistic and destructive tenets of neoliberalism: an ideological project that seeks to naturalize structural inequality by trusting free market economics to bring about optimal social conditions. Neoliberalism assumes that all failure is personal failure rather than the work of a larger system. Individualizing students’ adherence to unrealistic academic standards by failing to contextualize them within the pervasive culture of this university clearly exemplifies this ideology. The result is to make us responsible for our suffering under these structural conditions. After setting up a campus culture that forces over-work, you leave us to redress our resultant mental fatigue on our own. We need to shift to a framework in which the University takes responsibility for the conditions it creates, implementing structural changes that will preclude the crises we’re facing in the first place.
The University continues to avoid accountability by reinforcing a damaging narrative of normalcy, whilst constructing redundant task forces to maintain a facade of concern. Leaders of the recently-convened task force on student well-being have told student organizers that they are not equipped to address the campus mental health emergency in a timely fashion. They have told us they do not have the “administrative resources” to take minutes and do not even think they will have proposals for change by the summer. While this task force drags its feet and evades accountability, student and alumni organizers have already collected data from the student body, performed extensive, investigative journalism and developed thorough recommendations to improve campus well-being that rot on administrators’ desks. If administrators truly want to help us, here are some suggestions: keep your empty emails; lower the credit requirements for graduation across all schools (an act SESP has already modeled); allocate the necessary funding and resources to CAPS, SES, and AccessibleNU; and exchange the violent messaging of “AND is in our DNA” for sustainable action (of course, actions speak louder than words). The list could go on. By the way, we’re planning a town hall on April 25 to generate more solutions to our campus emergency.
We read your email, and from your timing and language, we heard loudly and clearly that your goal was simply to ensure student productivity. That is the extent to which you care about our mental health – to the extent that we are able to work for the benefit of this university and its reputation. You want us to seek help not because it is good for us, but because it keeps us alive long enough to continue to work so that you can continue to compete with your “peer” institutions. You demand we perform to your high standards to maintain your elite status, and then you blame us when we cannot survive such a violent environment. The reality is that Northwestern is already a failure in comparison to other schools: We have one of the worst counselor-student ratios of many peer institutions. There is not a single miniature pony in the world that could patch this gaping need. Our only option is immediate action to push forward the explicit recommendations that students have already delivered to administration. This campus culture is not physiologically sustainable, especially for those of us who suffer from chronic stress and trauma as a result of racialization, poverty, disability, etc. When we crack under the pressure of this toxic system, you reduce us to emails by which you warn students to “take care of [themselves].” By what standard, is this normal?
Fund Our Care Collective