6/10 – 6/16

Supreme Court Ruling on LGBT Rights

One hopeful event occurring this week was the Supreme Court decision banning discrimination against gay and transgender workers. In examining Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, wrote for the majority, “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

The decision represents a significant victory for the LGBT community and hopefully a promising sign for gender-nonconforming and transgender college students who continue to report higher levels of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression with discrimination a contributing factor.

According to research from the Healthy Minds Network, gender-nonconforming and transgender students are four times more likely to report mental health issues, compared to their cisgender peers. The 2019 study found that almost 80 percent of gender-minority students surveyed reported having at least one mental health issue, and more than one-third said they had seriously considered suicide. And a 2015 national study showed that 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt, almost entirely before the age of 25.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a transformative ruling for LGBTQ rights in the U.S.,” says Dr. Sarah Ketchen Lipson, co-Principal Investigator of the Healthy Minds Network. “There is still an enormous amount of work to do in terms of advancing LGBTQ equality, including on college campuses, where many transgender and genderqueer students are unable to change their name in campus records or access gender-inclusive campus accommodations. I am hopeful that we will continue to see protections put in place for LGBTQ individuals nationally and within higher education.”

Black Lives Matter

College leaders have issued statements denouncing racism, though critics claim many are insufficient or “toothless.” In the Chronicle Review, Johnathan Charles Flowers, a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Worcester State University wrote, “We won’t accept ‘listening sessions,’ ‘open forums,’ meetings with the president, or the other mechanisms that are deployed to disempower us.” He says these statements from presidents “shield their home institutions from the need to make structural changes that would, in effect, change the image of the institution.” The Chronicle held a virtual event to discuss bigotry, diversity, and how colleges can address issues surrounding race and class. The event was hosted by Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, and Scott Carlson, a senior writer at The Chronicle, and included Devin Fergus, a professor of history and Black studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia; Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; and G. Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College. A transcript of their conversation is here. During the event, the chat room was briefly taken over by racist comments. President Sorrel said of the intrusion, “If this is what happens even during a Chronicle event where good people are having reasoned, intellectual conversations, then we cannot be surprised by what is happening on the streets of our nation.”

A Colorado State football player working for a roofing company in Loveland was ordered to the ground and held at gunpoint by a man who said he mistook the player and another employee as being members of the activist group known as Antifa. According to ESPN, the man called police to report two men wearing face masks going door-to-door, and when police arrived they found him wearing fatigues and armed with two pistols, holding both men on the ground at gunpoint. In a letter addressed to the CSU community, university president Joyce McConnell, athletic director Joe Parker and head football coach Steve Addazio said, “Our student is a young man of color, while the perpetrator is white. Regardless of what investigators learn or reasons the perpetrator gives, we know this: Our student got up Thursday morning, worked out with his team, then showered, dressed and went to work. Hours later, he was facing a stranger with a gun and hearing police sirens that had been inexplicably called on him. Given what we have seen happening in cities across this country, we know all too well that this encounter could have proceeded very differently.”

Johns Hopkins University announced that it will pause plans to create a private campus police department for at least two years. The plan had been opposed by students and faculty, who argued that the force would put the welfare of people of color on campus in jeopardy. The administration said the pause would allow the university to “benefit from the national re-evaluation of policing in society brought about by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.”

The DCist reports that college students in the district are asking their universities to cut ties with D.C. police and reform on-campus policing. Students from American University, George Washington University, Howard University, University of the District of Columbia, Georgetown University, Gallaudet University, and Catholic University of America have sent letters to their school administrations and the Metropolitan Police Department demanding an end to the relationship between D.C. police and their campuses. Their letters also ask for other reforms to campus police departments, including reducing the presence of on-campus police in residence halls and improving officers’ sensitivity and racial bias training.

Students at the University of Colorado Boulder are also calling for the university to end its contract with the Boulder Police Department and reduce funding for university police. Students want the school to reallocate that money to other programs like housing and mental health services.

Louisiana State University was initially criticized for its response to viral videos of incoming students using racial slurs in reference to African Americans. In one case, the university condemned the speech, but did not no take action against the prospective student. In another case, the University did not appear to take any action. A group of student leaders met with university officials about the response in what members of “Blackout LSU” said was a “progressive and hopeful” discussion. One student accused of using racial slurs has since announced that he will no longer be attending the University.

In a letter posted on social media, athletes at the University of Texas at Austin, including football players, demanded that the institution become a more inclusive place for Black athletes and the Black community. Their post, which listed demands, said that without a commitment from the university, they would no longer participate in any recruiting efforts or donor-related events. Amira Rose Davis, who studies race, gender, sports, and politics spoke with the Chronicle about collegiate activism and where it could lead. Of the UT players’ demands, she says, “It’s like, ‘We labor for you. We generate all this income. We are starting to have an understanding of just how much is wrought on our backs. At the very least, we understand that we have a platform that many other Black students at these schools do not.’”

Coronavirus Impact

The Daily Bruin podcast In the Know focused on the coronavirus’ impact on mental health. UCLA student Kristin Snyder interviewed other students about how the pandemic has affected them and how they coped. One student said her anxiety has increased and she feels more isolated. A graduating medical student said, “I’ve also been really trying to be mindful about what media I’ve been consuming. I think it’s really easy to go down a dark hole of limited time and access to the internet.”

The Science Times reports that the pandemic has exacerbated college students’ pre-existing mental health issues. According to the article, the lack of social contact and activities, disruption of routines, loss of part-time jobs, and burden of online classes, have contributed to worsening conditions.

Business Insider did a deep dive on the state of Gen Z mental health and the negative impact of the coronavirus, compiling data from the nonprofit organization DoSomething Strategic, the study platform StuDocu, the American Psychological Association, and the creative app VSCO. According to BI, these studies have shown a negative impact of the pandemic on the mental health of Gen Zers, who were already suffering significant anxiety, depression and stress. Additionally, students are doubting the quality of an online education and miss in-person learning.

A researcher at UNC is studying the impact of the coronavirus on college persistence among first-generation college students. Cassandra R. Davis will lead a group of researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Pittsburgh, Florida A&M University, the University of Colorado Boulder, Rowan University, and Bucknell University. The team is a mix of sociologists, engineers, public health and public policy scholars. “Our overall goal is to analyze the information quickly and get our results out to higher education institutions so they can make decisions on effectively supporting our most vulnerable populations,” said Davis.

WTOP News highlights three ways colleges and universities are working to support currently enrolled international students including providing COVID-19 testing and free masks, offering remote tutoring and providing pandemic-related counseling. Most enrolled international students remain in the U.S. on campus or in another location, according to a survey of U.S. higher education institutions published by the Institute of International Education.

After weeks of uncertainty, the U.S. Department of Education has determined that unauthorized and international students cannot receive federal coronavirus relief. The “interim final rule” restricts CARES Act grants to students who are eligible for Title IV aid, which would exclude those populations. A federal judge in Washington blocked the rule, allowing the state’s colleges to distribute emergency grants to students who don’t qualify for traditional student aid.

The Chronicle reports that higher education stakeholders including faculty members, researchers, and even some students, are questioning administrators optimism about whether students, a group known for risk-taking, will follow social distancing guidelines when they return to campuses this fall. In an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed, Lee Burdette Williams, senior director for mental health initiatives and the College Autism Network at NASPA, writes that returning to campus “will rely on changing student behavior in significant ways. And that presents some challenges.” Because, Williams says, information alone does not change behavior, colleges will need more tools to keep students and the campus community safe this fall. She says that universities must, “Speak with many voices and say the same thing to students, over and over. Rely on the developmental power of redundancy to help those messages sink in.” She recommends that colleges remind students daily of their own power to influence what happens on campus, especially if they want to remain there.

According to the Chronicle, Georgia will reopen its 26 public colleges and universities this fall without requiring face masks, despite evidence that they play a critical role in reducing the spread of Covid-19. Instead of a strict requirement, masks will be “strongly encouraged,” a policy that is worrying some faculty.

Colleges are altering their gap year programs, elements of which are being complicated by the coronavirus. Mirroring the challenge in returning to campus, it is unclear whether it is feasible or advisable for gap year programs to operate in-person. Some colleges are altering their policies around deferment, offering more flexibility on the deadline to commit to taking a gap year, or notifying students that the programs may have to adapt events or go virtual in the event of a second wave.

Mental and Behavioral Health

According to a new Gallup study based on interviews conducted in late 2019, only 17% of recent college graduates strongly agreed that their alma mater was passionate about the mental health of its students. Forbes reports that graduates who strongly agreed that their professors cared about them “as a person” were three times more likely to also strongly agree that their school was passionate about students’ mental health. Students’ views about their alma mater were generally linked to supportive experiences with faculty and mentors.

Texas A&M sophomore Saahil Sadhwani started the Student Wellness Initiative, a social media campaign to connect students, bring awareness to mental health and reduce the stigma attached to discussions about mental health. Sadhwani establishes daily challenges like “hosting a group dinner via video conference, supporting a local business, working on a puzzle, listening to an album start to finish and reading a book they have been meaning to finish.” The Student Wellness Initiative page shares people’s posts as they complete the challenges. Sadhwani says, “It’s like a whole network and you can feel connected safe at home.”

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

According to the Hechinger Report, Black college students and professors are tweeting stories about racism on campus under the hashtag #BlackIntheIvory. There were more than 86,000 tweets about this topic between Saturday and Monday, said Joy Melody Woods, a cofounder of the hashtag, who is a Ph.D. student in communication studies at the University of Texas, Austin. The tweets tell stories revealing disturbing bias like a black professional being confused with custodial staff, and a black student being told the only reason she received a medical school scholarship was because of her race.

In and op-ed in the Washington Post, Osamudia James, a law professor at the University of Miami and a 2020 Public Voices Fellow, writes that “institutions must attempt to dismantle the unfair disadvantages and advantages associated with race, always paying attention not just to numbers, but to pipelines, to climate, to leadership, to power.” Thinking about diversity through this lens, she argues, will move the conversation beyond token representation and into “questioning how resources are distributed, who makes decisions, what behaviors are incentivized, which group outcomes are prioritized, and who does, and doesn’t, get to tell their stories.”

The University of California regents unanimously backed a state measure that would restore affirmative action to public CA colleges. The governing board endorsed a state constitutional amendment, Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5, that would repeal the state’s ban on considering race, sex and ethnicity in public education, employment and contracting.

Sexual Assault and Title IX

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the leaders of 15 higher education groups ask her to delay the new rule governing campus sexual violence, arguing the rule’s Aug. 14 effective date comes too soon in the midst of the pandemic and would be challenging to implement.

Basic Needs

A Black female student organization at George Washington University is raising money for members experiencing financial hardships amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Black Girl Mentorship Program, a student organization aimed at unifying Black female students, set a $5,000 fundraising goal to create the BGM Empowerment Fund. GW Senior Precious Smith said she thought of the idea for a fund after having conversations with members who told her stories of their financial difficulties  as a result of the pandemic and watching news stories about families struggling to afford essential needs. “I feel like it’s important for us to make an impact with the members that are in our organization,” she said. “Because as sisters, we need to stick together, and my family has a thing that says we’re stronger together.”