Update 11.7.2020, 1:00am
As I’ve already told many of my students, I met with OSU administration a few days ago, and it went very well. I won’t go into specific details (it was a private meeting, after all), but the Provost (Dr Gary Sandefur), Chair of Faculty Council (Dr Gina Peek), and VP of Student Affairs (Dr. Douglas Hallenbeck) were all very caring, kind people, and really appreciated hearing these concerns from students. I was nervous meeting with them at first, but they treated me very kindly, and made it clear that they have heard our concerns, and have looked over the letter intently.
As you’ve already seen, Dr Sandefur has just sent out emails clarifying, and offering clear reasons for, the administration’s position on Pass/Fail. He’s also linked to lists of mental health resources, and everyone agreed that communication between students and the university is very important. I personally would still appreciate a Pass/Fail option, but it’s clear that the administration is discouraging faculty from allowing COVID-19 and the ongoing crisis to wreck student grades, but instead encouraging understanding and work for the good of students. It is definitely possible for faculty to help students finish out this semester with their heads above water, even without Pass/Fail. Further, as I said in the last update, there are more mental health resources available than most students know, and, in the email regarding PASS/FAIL, Dr Sandefur includes a link to all these resources. Please check them out if you’re in need of help.
Regarding the COVID concerns, I think that many of these may be down to misunderstandings or problems of communication between students and the university. Miscommunications regarding COVID are serious, but, as I originally suspected, it is not necessarily an issue of policy, but of getting full cooperation with policy, and making sure no one case falls through the cracks. If there are still concerns about COVID (difficulties with roommates who are uncooperative with contact tracing, or difficulty getting isolation housing or medical treatment, for example), Dr Hallenbeck has made it clear that he is there to help, and that he deeply cares about student health. Students who need isolation/quarantine housing can get it; if there is some problem, students need to actively seek out administrators and inform them, particularly those in student affairs, including Dr Hallenbeck. Here is a link to a directory with helpful contacts:
Overall, I really do feel that OSU has done a far-above-average job at safeguarding students from COVID without being paternalistic. The OSU administration has heard our concerns, has given them real thought, and has said they are working to figure out the best solutions. I do not know (because it is not my job) details what the school will do. But that the administration has had a kind meeting with a nearly powerless adjunct instructor in response to a letter which some have found overly critical and demanding is a sign that OSU truly does care.
Further, Stillwater News Press has written an article about the Pass/Fail petition, and has now (Nov. 6th) written a follow up, describing our letter:
There are a few inaccuracies I want to quickly clarify. They’re not major, but in the name of total transparency, here are some corrections:
First, I didn’t have any sort of official meeting with faculty to discuss our concerns, I merely picked up anonymous concerns here and there from private conversations; students and I met more formally, and I opened up my time for students to talk with me about any concerns they had, once I saw their suffering. Again, I chose to write an imperfect letter, because I felt it better to do something rather than nothing, in the hopes that the university would clarify or address these concerns. They did respond, and very kindly, and so much of the goal of the letter has been achieved.
Second, the open letter doesn’t say that the University refused aid to students with a positive test, but that there were some unclear and (from my perspective) unverifiable complications with students who had covid-positive or covid-exposed roommates refusing to cooperate with contact tracing and isolation.
Third, I didn’t meet with the head of academic counseling, but the head of faculty council. In this meeting, which I described above, I obviously was not given details (it’s not my job to be an administrator!). But, I did, as the article says, leave with the impression that the school was serious about communicating with students, receptive to student concerns, and meeting the mental health needs of students. I do not know any details, but I can say that OSU cares, is aware, and is working.
Anyways, I hope we can all hang in there, and take it as some form of consolation that the university has heard us, and cares about us.
Update on 10.26.2020
(1) Multiple people have told me that there is not a 6mo wait for University Counseling Services. I figured this was the case, as this sounded extreme. Per The O’Colly, it’s only taking 2wks, and the waitlist is very short. The O’Colly article addressing this came out right after I put up this letter, and was only just brought to my attention. So, of course, this concern has been resolved, and I apologize for not seeing this sooner. I strongly encourage anyone reading this to call UCS if you need help, and to let the school and your professors know if you, for some reason, aren’t getting the help you need.
Obviously, students are still concerned with access to mental-health services, and I am too. But, as was the spirit of the letter initially, I am glad that the University is in some way responding to these concerns. If the university is already doing great, but the information is not spreading effectively to students, then my hope is that this letter will aid in that information spreading.
(2) Also, I’ve been told that a student-counselor ratio of 250/1 is unreasonable, and that this recommendation is supposed to be for K-12 Ed. This is not my area, and I don’t have much of an idea whether or not this figure is reasonable. I also included a recommendation for a baseline ratio of 1500-1000/1. OSU is currently meeting this, however, this is listed as a minimum, and we are in a crisis.
(3) There have not been four student suicides, but three. Three is still far too many, but the original fear of some students that OSU was not being transparent is not well founded. The O’Colly will write on this soon. Again, as I said in the letter, I did not intend to accuse OSU of any wrongdoing in relation to the suicides. The point in raising this issue was to show that there is a growing distrust between the student body and university as an institution, and that this gap needs to be bridged. I myself feel that this distrust comes from a weakness in the modern university system, not just with OSU: students function as consumers of university goods (courses), and, on the whole, have little connection to the university as an institution. But this is a wider issue, and not a criticism of OSU itself.
One thing should be noted, however, and here I quote the O’Colly:
“In addition to multiple mental health resources, OSU has also partnered with the JED foundation, a national leader in suicide awareness and prevention. The university is in the process of becoming a JED-certified campus, which would help create campus-wide prevention and intervention strategies and would advise on best-practice mental health policies, programs and services.“
The false claim that four students had died by suicide had spread around social media for a bit before I was told these student concerns. Even now, the University has not released a statement–The O’Colly wrote the article above, but The O’Colly is a student newspaper. Once these rumors got started, OSU as an institution should have released a statement quickly. This gets to the heart of the issue: there is a gap in communication between students, faculty and administration, and this gap is exacerbating a crisis. Again, I hope that this letter results in a few changes, but recognize that most of the concerns listed below can probably be resolved by a detailed and clear statement from the university.
(4) Here’s an article on quarantine housing funded by OSU:
There are no details of who exactly qualifies for housing accommodations, which was the primary concern of the letter in regards to housing. Here is OSU’s website on isolation procedures:
Again, my purpose was to give voice to both my own concerns and student concerns. In one week, I had several students complain or express things that concerned me regarding housing. Some said that they were not given isolation housing, that they have roommates who needed housing but who refused to leave, that they were still symptomatic yet planning on returning to campus while symptomatic, etc. On top of this, in one DAY, many students contacted me, telling me their mental health had rapidly declined, that they were or had recently been suicidal, and that they did not feel there was help available from the university.
October 23rd, 2020
Oklahoma State University Administration,
Despite promises from the administration, students at Oklahoma State University (OSU) are suffering greatly. Currently, there are several issues seemingly going unaddressed. A list of demands or concerns is below, followed by background information, including anonymous student reports of campus conditions.
Anonymity is necessary, because the consensus among students is fear–students are anticipating retaliation from the university if they speak out, and this worry has suppressed many voices. While it’s not clear why there is a sense of dread when publicly criticizing the university administration among both faculty and students, the fact that campus is filled with this tension is undeniable.
Many of my students recognize that OSU might already have policies in place to address some of these issues, but, even after looking through OSU guidelines, cannot get satisfactory answers. This letter was written in the hope that OSU will respond with clarity to these concerns/demands and, where possible, make changes to aid in student health and wellness.
In what follows, I in no way mean to insinuate any sort of misconduct on OSU’s part regarding student suicides. I have nervously included a direct quote from a student to illustrate the fear and distrust of OSU administration among some students. Students need help and clarity, and some of them are beginning to mistrust the university to an extreme degree.
This online petition can be signed here:
And an online petition for Pass/Fail grading can be signed here:
A blog post where I will post updates and relevant detail can be found here:
And a PDF of this letter can be found here:
I am an adjunct lecturer with the OSU Philosophy Department. However, these comments do not represent Oklahoma State University, nor the Oklahoma State University Philosophy Dept. I write this as a public citizen, concerned with public health, including mental health.
I fully understand that universities are not designed to care for every aspect of students’ lives. Neither are universities meant to be totally fortified from disaster and pandemic. However, now that the university is aware of mass suffering, it has a moral obligation to respond. Further, the university is culpable for failing to preemptively expand mental health care to its students.
Neither can blame nor responsibility be placed solely on the university, but the Stillwater community, including the student body, must do better to care for one another. Social distancing must be observed, large gatherings banned, and masks worn.
Hopefully, if the university and community come together, life can return to normal quickly. I badly miss teaching on campus, and seeing my students face to face.
Pierce Alexander Marks
OK State University Philosophy Dept. (Adjunct Prof.)
- OSU needs to implement a Pass/No-Pass grading option for Fall 2020, and likely for Spring 2021.
- OSU must tighten rules for returning to campus, ensuring that symptomatic students cannot return without medical screening by a doctor and negative COVID-19 test.
- OSU must tighten contact tracing, so that no symptomatic students slip through the cracks.
- OSU must make medical care more accessible to students, especially to COVID-positive students, and must clearly communicate how to access this care.
- OSU must guarantee students with COVID-positive tests a place to isolate, and ensure that COVID-positive students do isolate, or leave campus, so as to protect roommates. Alternatively, students who do not feel comfortable in shared housing need to be accommodated.
- OSU must ensure that the promised sanitation measures are stepped up on campus.
- OSU must make free and stable mental-health care available to all students, which allows students to build relationships with a single counselor over time.
- OSU should attempt to bring the Student to Counselor Ratio closer to 250/1. This would only require a total of approx. 96 counselors, of which OSU currently employs 22, so that OSU, to reach this ideal ratio, need only hire or contract with 74 more counselors. At the very least, the university ought to ensure all students access to free Better Help services, or contract with counselors outside of the University.
- OSU must make non-law-enforcement crisis intervention available to students. Many students report being on the verge of suicide or self-harm, and report being unable to receive help without calling the police.
- Ensure that faculty cannot implement mandatory, in-person attendance policies for Spring 2021, to ensure that sick students do not come to campus.
- OSU admin needs to do more to discourage partying on and near campus, including at bars.
- OSU needs to allow for Spring Break or an equivalent, and find other, more mental-health-friendly ways of mitigating travel and partying over the Spring 2021 semester. A Fall-semester model, with a few short breaks during the second quarter of Spring 2021, would be helpful, and yet still mitigate travel.
- OSU must be consistent in the handling of on-campus events with regards to public safety. If commencement remains online, graduation fees charged to students ought to be refunded or not charged in the first place, as the university is directly profiting from hosting a virtual commencement (see section V).
First, OSU has refused, despite pleas from students, to implement a Pass/Fail option for Fall 2020. We feel that there is no justifiable reason to refuse to allow a Pass/Fail option. Citing “academic integrity” (as VP of Student Affairs Doug Hallenbeck has) and negative impact on scholarships, transfers and applications to jobs or further schooling is insufficient justification for several reasons. (1) A Pass/Fail option is optional, and only affects students who freely choose it. (2) Scholarships, applications and academic integrity are not nearly as valuable as student well-being. (3) There are no clear or definite reasons to think that applications to jobs or educational programs would be significantly affected by some students taking a Pass/Fail grade; educational institutions and employers should understand that COVID-19 has caused widespread suffering and adjust their expectations accordingly. Finally, a petition for a Pass/Fail grading option has received over 6,000 signatures as of Oct. 22, 2020, which is roughly 1/4th of all students at OSU. One student writes,
I know I don’t succeed in online classes and not being given the option or warned before classes started how to class would be adjusted for covid meant that I was stuck with what I had chosen before the pandemic was on our radar. Not to mention (this is from what I can tell, I haven’t heard either way) professors don’t seem as though they received training to equip them to handle the pandemic’s consequences on their students, classes, and themselves. I have several professors that are technologically unskilled, leading to missing lectures, messed up assignments, etc. Adding on stresses due to grades because OSU has not yet caved on a pass/fail calling to the social isolation and fears of the pandemic, is a disaster waiting to happen, and I’m honestly surprised we haven’t had more suicides considering, however bad that may sound.
II.) Possibly Insufficient COVID-19 Response and Sanitary Conditions Risking Significant Harm to Student Health:
Second, OSU COVID guidelines are (a) insufficient to protect students and (b) not well enforced nor implemented. Additionally, (c) OSU has not made health-services widely available and accessible to students sick with COVID-19. These failings of OSU not only pose a threat to student well-being, but the broader public of which the student body is a part. Because on-campus students are a significant portion of Stillwater’s population, and because many of them travel both around the state and out of state, how OSU handles the pandemic and mental health crises discussed below have a state-wide and national importance.
(a) Current OSU guidelines are insufficient in that students are allowed to return to dorms while still symptomatic, and the criteria for return to dorms is far too vague and subjective to be useful. Current OSU criteria for return to campus is 10 days from start of symptoms, improvement in symptoms, and lack of fever. However, due to the inherent difficulty of gauging one’s own improvement, and the unpredictability of COVID-19 progression, this leaves too much up to fallible student judgement, and puts roommates, students and faculty/staff at risk.
(b) Further, it is not clear that there is any detailed contact-tracing on campus. There appears to be symptomatic students, who are likely still contagious, returning to campus and shared-living spaces. Additionally, there are reports from students who have tested positive for COVID-19, or who have had a roommate test positive for COVID-19, and been refused aid from the university. One student in particular claimed that “when my studio was affected by COVID, the university left us on our own.” Another student related this story in a very long social media post, briefly paraphrased below.
Student A claimed that their roommate, Student B, was exposed to COVID, but refused to get tested, exposing their entire flat; however, under current OSU guidelines/procedures, there is nothing Student A can do to protect themselves from negligent roommates like Student B except for moving out, and no way for OSU to force Student B to get tested. Even after asking Student B to get tested or go home for a few days, Student B refused, and Student A, with no other options, was forced to stay in their flat.
Though the university has promised to arrange separate rooms for those who test positive, this is not always happening. Currently, though the CDC and University recommendations are aligned, the University should be playing it safe and not allowing students to return to campus housing nor in-person classes without medical evaluation or further testing. Especially since OSU faculty/staff and students are not notified of positive test results.
Also under header (b), students are reporting inadequate sanitation at OSU, despite promises. Here is a direct account from an anonymous student:
Initially in the town hall meetings about the university’s response to the pandemic they talked about how many sanitization precautions they were taking. I was told they would be sanitizing all classrooms at least once a day. I am in the first class to be in my classroom for the day, and once I found crumbs still on the desk. That leads me to believe there is no sanitization of desks [between school days] going on like I was told there would be. I think OSU needs to address this and be truthful about what sanitization they are doing. If students know, they can take their own measures and sanitize their desks themselves if they want to.
To be fair, from OSU’s guidelines and procedures, it is not clear whether the university ever committed to wiping down surfaces at least once a day, or if the university promised merely to fog each classroom at least once a day. Still, the vague nature of OSU guidelines, as I described above in regards to quarantine/isolation, can create serious health hazards for students. A different student has similar complaints, adding that mask-wearing on campus is not observed nor enforced, even by campus police, who themselves are not willing to wear masks.
I only attended my in person class once this semester. Upon walking in the room, the seats were 3ft apart, but were shielded on three sides with clear plexiglass to prevent contamination. The majority of the class immediately took their masks off. Even though we have assigned seating, if classrooms get cleaned once a day, that’s about a dozen students, who weren’t required to wear masks, contaminating the desk area with droplets during their entire class period. If I went to any more classes, the contamination would be exponential and impossible to contract trace. I have an immunocompromised roommate, so of course I have no written statement that I personally can not attend mandatory classes, and have suffered to keep my roommate safe. We live off campus and signed our lease in January. When students walk out of buildings, they also take off their masks despite still being in large crowds, not socially distanced. There’s nothing stopping students from being maskless on OSU walking paths, and two passing students get within inches of each other with no protection. During one of my Physics labs, the physical science building had the fire alarm go off. The first responders were a few police officers. 2 officers were not wearing masks, 1 was. They walked past students from my lab who had taken off their masks and did not enforce the mask policy. It took over ten minutes for the fire department to arrive. 1 of the firefighters was not wearing a mask. I tweeted this information at okstate and they said they’ll look into it. I have not been updated.
Faculty have noted resistance to mask-wearing from campus and city police, and even other faculty, as well. I wrote elsewhere:
I’ve been pulled over by a Stillwater City cop who peered into my window, unmasked, a foot away from my face, and have seen the same happen multiple times across town. I would expect university policy to be more restrictive, but have witnessed campus police walking about campus and entering buildings without masks. I have never seen the mask-mandate enforced, much less observed. Even fellow faculty members sometimes talk to one another maskless in close proximity, even in small break-rooms. I am immunocompromised. Why are OSU officers, employees and students willing to endanger my life, and the lives of others like me? Why isn’t OSU doing more to ensure compliance?
(c) Multiple students have reported to faculty that, once quarantined for a positive COVID-19 test, University Health Services (UHS) have not reached out to them to check on their symptoms. Further, multiple students have reported to faculty that, though they were significantly ill, they were not advised on how/where to seek treatment, and that, upon calling UHS, they were not able to get a prompt virtual appointment. This is especially trying for students who are not from the area, as they have no established physician in Stillwater, and because the Stillwater Hospital is currently at or near COVID ICU capacity as of Oct. 15th, 2020.
Oklahoma woman fighting COVID-19 forced to find treatment out of state, medical officials claim hospitals are filled to the brim
III.) Insufficient Preparation and Response to Mental Health Crisis:
Third, OSU failed to prepare for the predictable mental health crises on campus. Currently, OSU mental health services is backed up, and appointments are booked out as far as 6 months (according to students who self-reported to faculty). An alarmingly high number of students are reporting suicidal thoughts or inclination to self-harm to faculty members. OSU has stated that, though there is a long wait for counseling appointments, students in urgent need of a counselor will be seen quickly. However, students have reported to faculty that, upon calling University Counseling Services, they have been shrugged off, or simply told to seek help by calling the suicide prevention hotline. One student writes,
OKState’s University counseling is a disappointment! I went to go seek grief counseling after my best friends murder a month ago, and they told me that the soonest I could be seen was two weeks out. They let me stand there, not able to make eye contact or form a complete sentence, and the best they could come up with is, “I’m sorry but there’s not much we can do.” When I finally did get a counselor we got through one session until she decided to double schedule over our appointments and not respond to her email. I can’t speak for everyone but I know for a fact that I’m not the only person this has happened to. We as students are struggling and when we ask for help we’re told to “wait” or are given inadequate resources that only serve to ruin our mental health further. The LEAST the University could do is offer a pass or fail option so we can move forward with a shred of our mental and emotional health intact.
Another student says,
Counseling services here are a joke honestly. They say generic stuff about being easy on yourself while professors are pushing. I keep trying to call them and being put on hold for 45min.
9 times out of 10, they [University Counseling Services] just tell you to try back tomorrow. The two people I actually spoke to were too talkative, really awkward, didn’t give me a chance to talk, and the free sessions feel like a sham.
Long waits and inaccessible mental health care is no mystery, given the student to counselor ratio at OSU (see links below for sources on enrollment and number of counselors). To be clear, the ratios below regard free or low cost counseling through University Counseling Services. There are between 20-26 additional counselors available on campus, but these are not dedicated to students only, and charge based on a sliding scale.
Total 2019 Enrollment = 24,041
Total Number of Undergraduate Counselors = 12
Total Number of Graduate Counselors = 10
Overall Student to Counselor Ratio = 1,093/1
Undergraduate Student to Counselor Ratio = 1,669/1
Graduate Student to Counselor Ratio = 401/1
The American School Counselor Association, however, recommends a Statewide Student to Counselor Ratio = 250/1. The International Accreditation of Counseling Services sets the MINIMUM Student-Counselor ratio around 1,500-1,1000/1. During a time of crisis, clearly more than the minimum need be done.
To be fair, there are counseling services available on-campus and virtually besides University Counseling Services. According to the Psychological Services Center (S. Murray Hall), they have three additional on-campus counselors. However, these services are not free, but operate on a sliding scale barring many students from accessing them. Counseling and Counseling Psychology Clinic has around fourteen additional counselors, several of them working purely as intake counselors. Further, none of these fourteen are (per the dept itself) accredited. They also serve not only OSU students, but the local community. Students receive four free visits, and then a sliding scale fee applies, still barring many students from access. One psychiatrist at Grand Lake Mental Health Center is contracted with OSU, but also serves the wider community, and services are not free. MD Live offers OSU students five free visits over the phone, but charges $99/visit after. A Mercy Crisis Hotline is available in addition to the standard suicide hotline, but these services, while useful, do not enable students in crisis to establish stable relationships with counselors, which is critical to mental health treatment.
OSU is failing its students in regards to mental-health. Services are available, but are not sufficiently accessible. Students in crisis are not receiving the help they need, and the university is not directing them to substantive mental health care outside of the university. Again, this was an entirely predictable turn of events, and OSU had plenty of time to prepare for it.
Between 3 and 4 OSU students have died by suicide since August 2020. Initial reports were of 3 suicides since August 2020, however, multiple students have reported an additional suicide to faculty which is going unreported. A student writes,
Myself and my close friends are not even sure how many students have committed suicide. The only reason we started finding out was because of the instance that happened at the fraternity house, as that story was publicized. I feel like OSU is covering up these tragedies as I can’t find information to confirm 3 or 4 students have taken their lives this semester. It’s okstates job to protect these students, and the first step is to be truthful. Awareness can make all of the difference. We need education on mental health more than ever in this catastrophe of a year.
IV.) Cancelling Spring Break Will Take a Heavy Toll on Mental Health:
Fourth, In addition to the already paltry mental health support offered by the school, OSU admin has decided to cancel spring break for Spring 2021. Spring is already a taxing semester, as Spring semesters typically have fewer holidays/breaks than Fall semesters. Many students have expressed anger, frustration and worry over this policy, not because they want to party, but because they are concerned with burn out. One student has said,
I’ve had several friends talk to me about how concerned they are that 16 weeks straight of socially distanced classes is going to wreak havoc on their mental health.
V.) Inconsistent Prioritization of On-Campus Events in Response to COVID-19 (OSU Prioritizing Athletics and Profits Over Academic Milestones):
Fifth, OSU has moved all December graduation ceremonies online. Commencement will now take place online on December 11th and 12th. However, OSU has still allowed the Big 12 Championship to take place on December 12th–the date graduation was supposed to take place. According to students, this is a clear prioritization of athletics and profits over academics. The core of any university is education, not athletics or capital, and OSU is grossly violating the spirit of higher education with this decision, stripping students of a key milestone in the name of safety, while allowing for a massive football game. It’s no wonder why–without a normal football season, OSU’s athletics departments would drain university funds by the tens of millions. Indeed, OSU football revenue keeps the rest of the mostly-unprofitable athletic programs afloat. But why, when the vast majority of OSU students do not substantively benefit from OSU athletics, should academics and recognition of student achievements take a back seat? If safety is the concern, administrators should consistently apply safety precautions to both athletics and academics, rather than prioritizing the latter over the former.