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Board of Visitors discusses student engagement, mental health and Honor System

Student turnout in elections and self-governance were also topics of debate among Board members

<p>One issue that University President Jim Ryan and the University have been aware of is increased mental health issues among students, especially since the onset of the pandemic.&nbsp;</p>

One issue that University President Jim Ryan and the University have been aware of is increased mental health issues among students, especially since the onset of the pandemic. 

The full Board of Visitors discussed student engagement, mental health and student self-governance, including the Honor System, in their meeting Friday afternoon. The Board convened in-person with a live stream option for public viewing. 

University President Jim Ryan addressed the Board, first acknowledging the news that Virginia Football coach Bronco Mendenhall would be stepping down from his position following the Cavaliers’ bowl game Dec. 29 in Fenway Park. The University announced Friday afternoon that Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott will be Virginia football’s next head coach. 

“I did want to take this moment to acknowledge Bronco’s tremendous leadership and his friendship,” Ryan said. “He has left the football program in a very strong position. But just as importantly, I think he's left an indelible mark on the players who were fortunate enough to have him as their coach.”

Alex Hernandez, dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, is also leaving the University — Hernandez is moving to Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, to serve as its next president. 

“He has been a fantastic Dean of SCPS, increasing the number of students who complete the bachelor's completion program, partnering with the college to offer a program that provides college credit and essentially transforming the School of Continuing Professional Studies,” Ryan said. 

Ryan then moved into a report on three of his priorities this year— engagement, mental health and the Honor System.

“I would say students, by and large, are incredibly happy to be here and to be in a semester that feels remarkably normal, especially as compared to last year,” Ryan said.

Along with Robyn Hadley, vice president and chief student affairs officer, and Provost Liz Magill, Ryan said he has developed multiple opportunities for student engagement, from office hours and Lunches on the Lawn with students to Arts on the Hill to Runs with Jim

One issue that Ryan and the University have been aware of is increased mental health issues among students, especially since the onset of the pandemic. Ryan noted efforts the University has made to increase mental health resources and accessibility for students, including TimelyHealth — on demand, free mental health services available to all students — and Hoos Connected. Throughout the year, students have voiced concerns with long wait times at Counseling and Psychological Services, even with the opening of the new Student Health building in October. 

Hadley and CAPS director Nicole Ruzek spoke on some of these concerns — Ruzek said she was both surprised and heartened by the volume of students who prefer to come to health appointments in person instead of engaging in a virtual setting. 

Sarita Mehta, student member of the Board and fourth-year College student, said she heard a lot of “excitement” about the new Student Health building and Timely Health, but noted the University could be doing a better job with offering mental health resources that students don’t necessarily need to seek out. 

“Something I’ve thought a lot about is the services we should be giving students at a default,” Mehta said. “I think providing those more long-term wellness tools and tips regardless of how proactive [students] are is really important, and destigmatizes going and using these resources.” 

Rector Whittington Clement asked Ruzek if students with lower-end learning disabilities — like attention deficit disorder — are included in counseling statistics and if CAPS had identified any specific cohorts of students who have a greater need for counseling. 

Ruzek responded that the University’s Student Disability Access Center assists students with learning disabilities, while CAPS is more focused on aiding students with anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. Ruzek also said CAPS has embedded counselors for students in cohorts that face increased levels of mental health issues, like in the School of Engineering, where stress levels are often high. 

Answering a question about CAPS’ ability to prescribe medication, Ruzek said that policy dictates that CAPS only prescribe medication to students who are also undergoing psychotherapy, in order to give them skills to handle their mental health in addition to any medications. 

Ryan then moved into discussion about the Honor system and how to increase appreciation of the Honor Code through fostering discussion amongst students. 

“In some ways the conversation about the Honor code has quickly shifted to a conversation about the right level of sanction and not enough I think about the values of the underlying code or the benefits of living in a community of trust,” Ryan said. 

Clements said he met with Andy Chambers, chair of the Honor Committee and fourth-year College student, about this issue. One solution Clements mentioned was creating some sort of video aimed at incoming students to emphasize the importance of living in a community of trust, and what it meant to “carry that with you for the rest of your life.” 

Clements said he and Chambers also discussed the difficulties the Honor Committee has had with passing referendum this semester. The main proposal the committee has considered this fall would reduce the sanction for committing an Honor offense from expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence. Members have been debating the proposal for months but have not passed anything.

Board member Thomas DePasquale noted the difficulty in getting students to vote in elections, calling lack of student participation the “biggest threat” to student self-governance. Mehta, however, noted the most recent election saw record turnout — 41.6 percent or 9,454 students voted in the 2021 race compared to 10.03 percent or 2, 417 students in 2020. Additionally, 25.4 percent of students voted on the year’s proposed referenda, a substantial increase compared to the previous yearly average of 8 percent. 

“Increasingly we are seeing single digit turnouts,” Mehta said. “On ballots, it's hard to pass referendum and that's a deeper problem with the Honor System and a lot of the organizations at U.Va. set against the backdrop that a lot of students in our generation are just questioning institutions broadly and there’s not a lot of buy-in.”

In the Honor System specifically, Mehta said that many students “don’t see the benefit” or recognize the “gravity and depth” of the system. 

Board member Carlos Brown, who was president of Student Council when he attended the University in 1995, said the debate over single-sanction has been going on since he was a student. 

“Our proposal failed [in 1995], because we stimulated a debate around what is Honor, and one of the challenges that our system has had is — is this a ‘sacred cow’ institution that has no relevance to our lived experience, or is it something that we own?” Brown said. 

Mehta said she thought the debate around Honor needed to be framed in “broader questions” about students’ values and goals and their roles as “citizen leaders” after graduation — those values can then be “distilled into the principles of the Honor System,” Mehta said. 

The conversation wrapped up with members agreeing that the discussion would continue, and that one strategy to increase visibility of the community of trust should target incoming students. 

“My job is to create the environment in which student self-governance can thrive,” Ryan said. “[Students] get real responsibility. It's not pretend, which means that they can make decisions that have real consequences that sometimes upset other people.” 

Mehta then addressed the Board, reflecting on her term so far and the semester as a whole — noting successes such as Student Council’s successful lobbying for an Aetna Health Insurance grant, the University’s introduction of TimelyHealth and growing peer advising opportunities

Mehta also called on the Board to increase efforts to enroll diverse students, including first-generation and low-income students, show student leaders more “care and gratitude” and echoed student calls to divest from fossil fuels. 

“Just as we make significant investments in the leaders of our future, we too should invest in the future, in ourselves,” Mehta said. “This is our chance to be on the right side of history.” 

Finally, Faculty Senate Chair Susan Kirk delivered an update on the Faculty Senate, which represents faculty of the University with respect to all academic functions. One of the Senate’s largest undertakings, Kirk said, has been reviewing Provost Policy 004, which governs the employment of academic general faculty.

“We are undertaking the revisions which honor the intent of the policy to provide clear, equitable terms and conditions of employment including standards radio promotion, affirmation of the role revolt, the role of academic general faculty and faculty self governance and promotion of principles of academic freedom,” Kirk said. 

Kirk also mentioned how proud she was of the way students and faculty had navigated the pandemic — every student at the University, Kirk said, has been “learning new things and grappling with new challenges.” 

“The foundation of learning at the University of Virginia is teaching critical thinking to young adults, so that when they graduate, they're not only applying that knowledge, but they are discovering and analyzing and disseminating and teaching the next generation of learners,” Kirk said. 

The Board then moved into closed session.