Two months after the University Provost’s office fired its point person on mental health, members of a student group that focuses on the issue say they have been left without an advocate in the Harvard administration.
Former assistant provost Marsha H. Semuels, whose position was eliminated over the summer, had spent seven years in the office organizing University-wide programs on mental health and coordinating the efforts of University Health Services (UHS), the Bureau of Study Council and student groups.
The leaders of the Harvard Mental Health Awareness and Advocacy Group (MHAAG)—an undergraduate group dedicated to reaching out to students facing mental illness or depression—said Semuels was irreplaceable and her termination could signal a lessened commitment to including student groups in mental health initiatives.
“It’s left us without a powerful advocate, without any advocate really, and we we’re really angry,” said MHAAG co-chair Caitlin E. Stork ’04. “What has happened is that it’s left us, and the interests of mental health at Harvard, unattended.”
University spokesperson Joe Wrinn said that initiatives Semuels ran—such as the “Caring for the Harvard Community” workshops and outreach efforts—will still take place.
Wrinn said Semuels’ job was cut because Provost Steven E. Hyman decided his office should no longer directly manage those kinds of programs.
“The provost felt that, given his expanding portfolio, it was more appropriate that the management of activities be carried out by the departments closest to them, while the provost’s office would retain the oversight and policy setting that was important to them,” Wrinn said.
Semuels confirmed she would not be returning to the provost’s office but declined to comment further on her employment situation.
Wrinn noted that Hyman, a psychiatrist who directed the National Institute of Mental Health before becoming provost two years ago, is an expert in the field.
Hyman has said that improving mental health is a priority and spoke at last year’s Mental Health Week on the importance of eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness.
The provost’s deputy chief of staff, Sean T. Buffington ’91, said in an e-mail two weeks ago that Semuels was “on leave for personal reasons.”
Wrinn said Buffington had given the original answer because “we rarely talk about employment situations, and I think it was out of respect to Marsha’s privacy.”
Although Wrinn said that the “position was eliminated” as of Sept. 1, many of Semuel’s responsibilities will be taken on by others within the office.
Semuels was the provost’s office representative to a Harvard-wide group that coordinates response—from the news office, the police and operations—to emergencies like suicides, and Wrinn said the provost’s office will retain that responsibility.
And Doreen Koretz, who began work in July as assistant provost for social sciences—a newly created position—will replace Semuels as the staff representative to the Student Health Coordinating Board.
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