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Hundreds of Harvard Affiliates Sign Open Letter for Increased Access to Mental Well-Being Support at HKS

Soul Keepers, a mental health advocacy student group at the Kennedy School, organized a petition calling on HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf to publicly commit to taking steps to improve emotional well-being at HKS.
Soul Keepers, a mental health advocacy student group at the Kennedy School, organized a petition calling on HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf to publicly commit to taking steps to improve emotional well-being at HKS. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writer

Hundreds of Harvard affiliates signed onto an open letter calling on Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf to publicly commit to implementing plans to increase emotional well-being at HKS.

Launched last week and signed by more than 200 affiliates as of Tuesday evening, the petition was organized by the Soul Keepers, a student mental health advocacy organization at HKS.

Following the suicide of HKS student Mateo Gomez in mid-December, the school hired Jimmy Kane as senior associate director of student support services, but members of the Soul Keepers said their concerns about student well-being have persisted.

The letter, co-sponsored by six HKS student organizations, calls for three policy changes.

First, it requests that all HKS syllabi and online course pages include a list of resources and information about the importance of emotional well-being. It also asks for “stand-alone sessions” on emotional well-being during summer orientation, as well as training sessions on emotional well-being for teaching fellows of Management, Leadership, and Decision courses.

“Our three points are mainly to foster a better environment for Kennedy School students to care, rather than, ‘Okay, implemented, done. Let’s walk away,’” HKS student and Soul Keepers member Yiming Dong said. “I think this mentality needs to be constantly reminded and brought up.”

HKS spokesperson James F. Smith said HKS leaders have been meeting with students and are committed to finding ways to enhance access to appropriate services and support.

“It is precisely because we appreciate the importance of student mental health and wellbeing that in January the School appointed the first Senior Associate Director for Student Support Services, tasked with focusing on this need,” Smith wrote.

“More talks are scheduled, including a meeting between students and Dean Elmendorf next week, to push forward what we all agree is vital work,” he added.

On Tuesday morning, nine members of the Soul Keepers, wearing matching stickers, gathered in front of Elmendorf’s office in an attempt to directly hand him a printed version of the open letter.

The organizers originally planned to meet Elmendorf at an event where he welcomes students to his office for breakfast. But Elmendorf ultimately ignored the students as he walked into his office and did not accept the letter.

When Lisa Cohen, Elmendorf’s assistant, asked the students if they were there for breakfast, the students said no and asked if they could enter to hand him a petition.

“We need to give him a petition. It will take us 30 seconds,” Kennedy School student Sebastian B. Fernandez said to Cohen.

Cohen offered to take the petition and pass it on, but she did not allow the students into the Dean’s office.

As the students negotiated with Cohen for access to Elmendorf’s office, Cohen said she believed Elmendorf had not responded to their meeting requests because Debra E. Isaacson, the school’s senior associate dean for degree programs and student affairs, and Suzanne Cooper, academic dean for teaching and curriculum, are the “ones who are going to make things happen.”

After students spent roughly 45 minutes waiting and deliberating outside Elmendorf’s office, they ultimately opted to read remarks to Cohen and hand her the petition.

In an interview later on Tuesday, Kennedy School student and Soul Keepers member Kei Sakai said that after the day’s events, he believes student well-being is not a priority for Elmendorf.

“The issue of emotional well-being, it’s something that he, the dean himself, needs to work on or address,” Sakai said. “I think that the dean’s take is, basically, he would say, he already delegates these kinds of issues to small deans.”

“I assume he’s basically saying, this is not the issue that he would need to work on,” he added.

Akira Shimabukuro, another HKS student and Soul Keepers member, said the Soul Keepers met with Isaacson and Cooper on April 18 to discuss the demands of the open letter.

According to Shimabukuro, Isaacson and Cooper acknowledged the importance of emotional well-being and agreed that change needed to occur. The administrators also seemed receptive to the letter’s demands, especially around including mental health information on syllabi and course pages, but they disagreed with requiring mental health training for TFs, Shimabukuro added.

Shimabukuro said he believes administrators are resistant to training teaching staff in emotional support because “the expectation is that the teaching fellows are expected to teach something according to the syllabi.”

“Giving emotional support is not seen as something that should be provided by the teaching-side teaching team at school, but by some available resources outside of course,” he added.

Smith wrote in the statement that Isaacson and Cooper have been in touch with students pushing for well-being initiatives and that administrators recognize “the need for more training for course assistants and suggesting a path for addressing this need.”

Shimabukuro said he believes teaching staff hold a unique position in supporting students through classes like those offered in the MLD program.

“They are probably the one within that class who are watching out for students and also can be in a position to take time for students and also build a trustful relationship with the students easily because of their position as a teaching fellow,” he said. “I think they’re more accessible to students.”

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @asherjmont.

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