The suicide contract
Suicide waivers, such as those issued by a Chinese university, heap too much pressure on students
For first-year students at the University, signing codes of conduct is a familiar exercise. Incoming students agree to follow the University’s standards of conduct, housing policies and, of course, the honor code. Students in the residence halls also create roommate and hallmate contracts, in which they set informal rules for noise, trash and more.
This year, incoming freshmen at a university in China’s coastal Guangdong province had to sign a contract much darker in tone. The 5,000 freshmen who enrolled at the City College of Dongguan University of Technology were asked to sign an agreement that absolved the university of responsibility if the students were to commit suicide.
This kind of agreement raises some provocative questions about the extent to which universities should be responsible for their students’ well-being. Universities tread a line between paternalism and neglect. The way each university approaches its students will vary based on historical context and the school’s mission and values. In Virginia, we have two schools that take very different tacks. The University of Virginia places a premium on student self-governance. Liberty University, on the other hand, binds its students to a strict behavioral code, which restricts what students can say, do, wear and read. Both of these systems — one which boosts student autonomy, another which forbids it — are suitable for each school’s varying aims and community norms.
But all universities should agree that the healthier their students are — both physically and psychologically — the more they will learn. Or, at least, good health will preserve a student’s capacity to learn, even if good health alone does not equal increased learning. Insofar as universities are responsible for undergraduate learning, they have a stake in maintaining the health of their students. Dongguan’s suicide waiver reveals a wrongheaded approach toward student mental health on the part of its administration. The suicide agreement sends a clear message to students: if you are struggling, it is your problem, not ours. By absolving itself of any responsibility in the case of a student suicide, the university fails to acknowledge the ways in which a hostile academic climate might aggravate a student’s psychological problem. Implicitly, it fails to acknowledge its responsibility for fostering an environment that promotes learning — which means an environment that promotes good health.
Also distressing is the context out of which Dongguan’s policy arises. University students in China already face tremendous pressures. More and more people are attending university. But after years of frenzied economic growth, China’s economy has slowed down since the 2008 financial crisis. The trends are similar to those in the U.S., but more pronounced: of approximately 7 million students in China who graduated in 2013, just 35 percent had found jobs by graduation. Agreements such as the one Dongguan students had to sign heap more pressure on already stressed-out students.
There are other ways for a school to keep its hands clean in the case of a student suicide. If schools such as Dongguan are interested in reducing liability in a responsible way, they should consider preemptive measures, such as directing funds toward counseling and student psychological support. Making students sign suicide waivers neglects the stake that universities have in the well-being of the people they educate.