Task Force on the CMU Experience needs to incorporate more student voices

Credit: Simin Li/ Credit: Simin Li/

On Oct. 6, Provost Farnam Jahanian sent out an email to the entire Carnegie Mellon community, reporting on the progress and goals of the Task Force on the CMU Experience. In the email, he described the Task Force as a group of more than 80 students, faculty, alumni, and staff working to take steps that would cumulatively make for a happier, healthier, and stronger Carnegie Mellon community.

Some of the many goals of the Task Force include “intentional structures for mentoring and nurturing; spaces and opportunities for reflection, play and meaningful interaction; and expanded access to academic advising and professional support, among other initiatives.”

Jahanian also wrote about the forthcoming announcement of an “unprecedented opportunity for all of us to engage in a campus-wide dialogue” and encouraged everyone at Carnegie Mellon to visit the Task Force’s progress and goals web page, and write back to the Task Force with suggestions and ideas. These are welcome steps that should go a long way in further improving the quality of the Carnegie Mellon experience in softer, more subjective ways. That said, there is room for improvement.

The Task Force was originally announced by President Subra Suresh on Apr. 20, as a part of the President’s Advisory Board initiative, a permanent and external group of eminent individuals meant to bring new expertise and unbiased recommendations on a variety of issues.

Some of the other steps announced as part of the Advisory Board initiative included a pilot program via the Eberly Center that would enhance the classroom experience, a massive new wellness center set to open in 2018-2019, an increase in the availability of hours and counselors at Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS), and several improvements in university-provided child care, particularly for younger faculty and graduate students.

Specifically, the Task Force on the student experience is described as a group that will “will begin developing near-term and long-term recommendations” after “an examination of campus climate.” This objective, while necessary and welcome, is vague and open to interpretation. However, even in May there was an emphasis on making the Task Force inclusive, with members composed of faculty, staff, students and alumni.

A previous Tartan Editorial Board, written in our April 25 edition, following President Suresh’s April 20 email, echoed similar sentiments of cautious, skeptical optimism. In that article, we argued that while the proposed action items sounded great in theory, far too little concrete information was provided to inspire confidence.

We pointed out that “the plans [the administration] promises are not yet developed enough. Even though conversations have begun, the announcement came before the members of the advisory board or the Task Force could be chosen. Most of the more active items still do not include timelines.”

Since then, as we now know from Jahanian’s recent email, the Task Force has been steadily defining its goals and composition in increasingly concrete terms. The group first met on May 20. The entire Task Force is divided into five working groups focused on campus infrastructure: health and well being services, campus culture and student success, professional development for faculty and staff, and academic policies and practices, respectively.

Each group is composed of dedicated Task Force members, as well as interested volunteers from the entire Carnegie Mellon community. These groups met several times over the summer to “identify immediate steps the university might take to improve the CMU experience, and to consider long-term objectives.” This summer, on Aug. 11, the entire Task Force convened once more to discuss successful ideas and develop priorities specifically with regard to the coming school year.

In a couple of short months, the Task Force has already taken significant steps to improve the Carnegie Mellon experience. Instructors of classes all over campus have begun making student wellness a greater priority, starting with explicitly including wellness language within course syllabi. Group X fitness classes offered in the Cohon Center are now free for all students. A CMU Cares Resources Folder, describing ways a student can reach out to Carnegie Mellon’s support network, has been distributed to all faculty and staff.

Access to CaPS has been made much easier, with the launch of a new website, increased scheduling hours, and the addition of five new staff members. Finally, a special emphasis is being placed on the current first-year Class of 2020+, with orientation programs including wellness messaging and outreach to parents and new students by President Suresh, Provost Jahanian, and Vice President for Student Affairs Gina Casalegno.

The Task Force’s goals going forward are even more ambitious. A reevaluation of course workload and unit alignment is underway to ensure a course’s units realistically line up with the hours per week required, as is an academic policy review, with a special emphasis on reevaluating the existing add, drop, and withdrawal dates for courses.

Faculty and staff will be trained in what the Task Force is calling “Mental Health First Aid,” thereby giving faculty and staff a deeper regard for student mental health as well as the ability to offer counsel when required. The existing unconscious bias program being piloted by the College of Engineering and School of Comuter Science will be extended to students, faculty, and staff across the university.

Collaborative workspaces around campus, referred to as “Nooks” by the Task Force, will be systematically refurbished and upgraded. Finally, Carnegie Mellon will tie up with the Jed Foundation, which offers “a multi-year assessment and collaboration opportunity to evaluate and enhance [Carnegie Mellon’s] mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention efforts.”

In May, The Tartan expressed concern that the goals outlined for the Task Force were too vague to inspire confidence. At this point in time, due to the steps that have already been taken, and concrete steps that are planned for the future, the vast majority of our previous concerns have been put to rest.

We’re glad to see President Suresh’s plans moving forward through the creation of actionable items. That said, we would still like to see an increase of student involvment in the initiative.
For the Task Force to improve the student experience at Carnegie Mellon, we believe that there needs to be a greater outreach to students that the Task Force is trying to serve. While there are several students in the working groups, there are only five on the actual Task Force. For an issue that is so directly relevant to them, students should have a stronger voice in this debate than they currently do.While Jahanian and the Task Force welcome student involvement, we believe they might receive far more substantial involvement if they created greater awareness around the campus community about the Task Force and it’s actions.

Outside of the occasional email, there has been no widespread conversation on this issue on campus. What we’d like to see is town halls, seminars, meetings, and other greater awareness-generation initiatives. We’d like to also see more collaboration with student organizations.
The Task Force needs to encourage students to speak up and share their stories and ideas. In order to receive genuinely insightful opinions from the student community at large, opinions need to be invited in warmer, more intimate settings than asking for online feedback.

One might expect that the students that are the most overwhelmed by the Carnegie Mellon experience will be the last to reach out on their own to a Task Force with their suggestions. And yet, these are the students that will often have the most valuable insights of all. Right now, there is no readily available information on how the Task Force’s membership was filled. Many students were unaware that the positions on the Task Force existed until they were already filled.

It is commendable that the greater student community now has the opportunity to offer feedback, but this opportunity should ideally have been provided earlier and in a more transparent manner. As a part of the Carnegie Mellon student community, we believe this is something that the majority of our peers are deeply passionate about. We believe that large parts of the student community would step forward with insightful suggestions, if only they knew where to direct their suggestions. We are happy to see that the Task Force is following through on its goals. We’re looking forward to see how this can benefit the campus community and we hope that conversations of the positive things the Task Force is doing will spread beyond just emails.