Ethics Dunce: Northern Michigan University

"...but just shut the hell up abut it, or we'll have to suspend you.  Love, The Administration"

“…but just shut the hell up about it, or we’ll have to suspend you.
Love, The Administration”

Episodes like this, coming out of the wreckage we call higher education, raise at least three troubling questions:

1. If universities are this ignorant of the principle of free speech, why is anyone surprised that our younger generations are so willing to sacrifice it for political ends?

2. How can institutions run by administrators this immune to basic ethical decision-making reasoning be trusted to competently educate their students?

3. How many equally outrageous policies do schools inflict on their students that we don’t hear about?

Northern Michigan University installed threatens students with discipline if they share suicidal thoughts with other students.

FIRE, as usual, is on the case, and has written to the school to explain to them why this is abusive and a flagrant First Amendment violation. One student who had received a warning about her discussing about her suicidal feelings with her friends on campus, and was told not to have such conversations. She asked for clarification from Associate Dean of Students Mary Brundage, writing,

Just to clarify, the email said that if I spoke to students about it that it would create a distraction—which could create disciplinary action against me. . . . I was also wondering if I respond to concerned people, is that enough to get me in trouble? I do not want to worry others by not responding and I do not want to have the possibility of getting expelled by reaching out to my friends during this emotionally trying time and I see the possibility of misunderstanding or getting more concerned.

Brundage responded by email, “You can certainly talk to your friends about how you are doing in general and set their minds at ease. You cannot discuss with other students suicidal or self destructive thoughts or actions. It is a very specific limitation.”

It is also an astoundingly dangerous, unconstitutional  and unethical one. Popehat blogger Ken White, who has openly discussed his own struggles with clinical depression, consulted Dr. Mendel Feldsher, a psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry who has counseled students at the Claremont Colleges in California. Feldsher wrote in part,

A policy which prohibits college students from communicating their suicidal or self-harming thoughts with their peers promotes isolation and disconnectedness which increases the risk for suicide. The simple act of disclosing ones suicidal thinking to a friend can itself be quite therapeutic and can interrupt the crescendo of depressive cognitions which can lead a student to act on suicidal thinking. Communication with a friend is frequently the pivotal first step toward seeking help, and many students may be more willing to initially share their feelings with a friend than with a school official or therapist. Threatening disciplinary action for student to student communication regarding suicidal thinking sends the clear message, “You are an unacceptable burden to others” which is a harmful message, particularly to a student who is depressed and suicidal.

I’m no expert, but I want to append this with “of course.” It can’t be “of course,” though, can it, if highly paid educators who we entrust with training and nurturing our children’s minds don’t comprehend it, and have so little understanding of human nature or what it was like to be young that their instincts are to prevent students from seeking support from their friends and peers?

Having read the Bill of Rights, I would also say “of course” to the statement that a state institution must not ban campus speech based on content, and school administrators who are competent to oversee education must respect the principle of freedom of expression….which brings us back to those three questions.

Pointer and Facts: Popehat

Sources: FIRE


25 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Northern Michigan University

  1. Students are very vulnerable when they first get into college, especially those who were over-protected by their parents. I think it is normal for them to seek guidance from their peers and talk about suicide. I’m not sure when that word became a 4 letter word. Recently, a psychiatrist at my primary care office committed suicide. It wasn’t talked about, you know, because those in the healthcare field “should know better.” I was angered when I found out that she did and that it wasn’t used to teach people that everyone has problems and even doctors are less than perfect. I had a friend who was happily married with kids and from the outside, things looked great…..the perfect family. He killed himself. To this day, no one knows why.

    Kids in college should be encouraged to talk about their feelings, their fears, especially if it is their first taste of being out of the house. Just to talk with another student who might feel overwhelmed with life or can share how you are feeling would be extremely helpful. When someone is 18 they are allowed to go off to war, yet in a college atmosphere, we must still coddle them??

  2. I dunno – I think it depends on the public or private nature of the school. A private school can pretty much impose whatever limitations it sees fit. Frankly I think limiting the discussions students can have is not necessarily a bad idea. They are at college to learn, nothing else, and talking about something as disturbing as suicide with peers who can’t do a thing about it is just going to freak those other students out and distract them from their learning. Save it for those in the counseling center who are equipped to handle this. Same with arguments that are going to generate a lot of heat but no light, same with these idiotic protests, same with a lot of other discussions that don’t bear on one’s studies. In retrospect now, if my roommate talked about suicide, I would call security the moment he was out of sight, and the next time he was in the room he would be picked up by two very large security guards and sent for observation. I’d also take action if weekend after weekend I came home to a white towel on the doorknob and had to find someone else to sleep. I’m here to study, not put up with someone else’s angst. Disruptive behavior is a problem. Selfish behavior is a problem.

    • About the only thing worthwhile about college is free-flowing exchange of ideas. I this satire? Whether the censorship is unconstitutional depends on whether its a public school; it is a breach of the principle of freedom of expression either way.

      Boy, what an awful room mate you would be!

    • You solve interpersonal problems by talking and working with people, not by whining to the authorities to come and drag away those who annoy you.

      • No, this is not satire, I assure you, it was born of my impatience with the current university system and its tolerance of all kinds of outrageous behavior from the left side of the political spectrum, and no tolerance at all for even a slight slip from the right. If we are going to impose very low tolerance for misbehavior or out of favor views, I say lets go back to the days when the colleges were in loco parentis, had broad authority, and didn’t brook any bullshit from clueless teens and twentysomethings.

        If you are having trouble coping or whatever, see the people in the counseling center, that’s why they’re there. If you feel suicidal, tell them, they will know the appropriate steps to take and take them. What’s more, they’ll keep it confidential. Call your family if you need to. Don’t create unnecessary drama for the other students by telling them about your personal demons when they have their own issues to deal with.

        You don’t like some speaker some group is hosting? Don’t go. Don’t insist on being a disruptive presence. You don’t like the fact that the ROTC is going to hold some event? Again, don’t go. Don’t try to disrupt things. You have a problem with some event that took place someplace else? That’s your problem. Don’t you go making it the other students’ problem.

        You’re here to get an education majoring in some real subject, I hope, not major in leftist activism nor work out your personal struggle. If you just want to pursue activism, you can follow the same path as Lori Berenson, who drew 20 years in prison in anything but posh conditions, or Rachel Corrie, who got pressed flat while trying to protect a gang of terrorists. If you need to work out your personal struggle, I’d suggest any number of sanitariums.

        • I would call security the moment he was out of sight, and the next time he was in the room he would be picked up by two very large security guards and sent for observation.

          That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

          If you are having trouble coping or whatever, see the people in the counseling center, that’s why they’re there. If you feel suicidal, tell them, they will know the appropriate steps to take and take them. What’s more, they’ll keep it confidential. Call your family if you need to. Don’t create unnecessary drama for the other students by telling them about your personal demons when they have their own issues to deal with.

          In other words, if you’re depressed, don’t connect emotionally or forge meaningful friendships with anyone at college. That sounds like a recipe for overcoming depression to you?

          (Also, do you not realize that you are literally arguing for a “safe space” from things you don’t want to hear?)

          You don’t like some speaker some group is hosting? Don’t go.

          Actually, by your logic, any speaker who might offend someone just shouldn’t speak at a university at all.

          • In addition to what Chris said, I wanted to add that in my experience people who are suicidal don’t think very clearly. In fact, “not thinking clearly” is usually a requirement for being suicidal.

            So any plan that requires suicidal people to do the logical thing might as well be “suicide prevention tips: don’t commit suicide.”

            I mean, that would be the most logical thing for them to do, right?

        • “Don’t create unnecessary drama for the other students by telling them about your personal demons when they have their own issues to deal with.”

          Point of relevance: it is actually far more effective for all involved if people talk with each other, bond, and help each other with problems. A world of people who keep to themselves, struggle alone, and ignore each other because they’ve got their own problems is a world that is gratuitously unpleasant, vastly less productive, and probably much less ethical, because why consider the consequences of your actions on others if you aren’t concerned with their problems, and use your own problems as license to ignore them?

          Besides, the entire capitalist economy is based on optimizing production by trading skills, so you don’t have to do everything yourself. Why can’t we do the same with less quantifiable but no less important resources like understanding, emotional support, and friendship? Much like an economy, a community is a gestalt: greater than the sum of its parts.

          If we want to build a pleasant, ethical, productive, strong world, where we can pool our strengths and form communities, we need to learn how to help each other with their problems even as we deal with our own. Everyone collectively and individually comes out better off and stronger for it.

          College is ostensibly preparation for the real world. Which world do you want people to prepare for?

          • I struggled in college due to undiagnosed Aspergers, and God knows I created a fair amount of drama for other people. My original vibes were to just stay quiet, and I wonder if things would have gone better if I had done just that, and been the silent guy in the corner of the room who turned in his assignments on time, did as he was told, and no one really knew.

            I live alone now, and I keep to myself outside of work. I am hoping, when I die, which will probably be sooner rather than later, than the neighbors will just say “Oh yeah, him, didn’t know him too well. He always kept to himself, never bothered anybody, and I can’t say anything bad about him.” If drama enters my life, I deal with it, on my own.

            • Steve-O,
              Did you ever think that maybe there are people similar to you out there who would, like yourself, benefit from a little socializing? I know Asperger Syndrome is more evident in today’s world than maybe when you were in school. (I assume you are around my age, as I’ve watch your comments).

              • I think that there are people out there like me who should have heeded The Voice of their friends who told them to stay hidden. I was told that I should be as quiet as I possibly could be and generally stay in my room when I was not either directly engaged in class or some other necessary activity. In retrospect, perhaps I should have done just that. I should have quit the musical activities I belong to and Dunn Only academics and perhaps I would have graduated in a better position. Being involved in society is a privilege, not a right, and if you are going to annoy, creep out, or cause fear in those around you, you forfeit that right.

                • On the one hand, people do have a right to not be intimidated by others. On the other hand, how exactly do you expect to become socialized if you don’t have anywhere to practice? One of the most prominent aspects of me (the one I’ve mentioned before, Barren [sic] Blauschwartz) caused a large amount of turmoil for people around me in my childhood, before I named it and gradually learned how to suppress it and eventually to use it with finesse. It would never have tolerated the idea that you should let people tell you who to be because they find who you are unpleasant. However, it represents a more or less fixed position, which necessarily is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

                  I used to sneer at people who allowed things to make them sad or angry, seeing them as weak, but I can’t concentrate when people chew with their mouths open. How sensitive is too sensitive? It would be silly to declare that I am objectively the right amount of sensitive, and other people are either too fragile or too obnoxious. How could we possibly make rules that are objectively fair to everyone’s level of sensitivity? The answer is that we cannot, but simply acting without rules leads to a type of problem I have dubbed the “noise war”, where two people persist in doing things that are completely within their rights according to the rules, but which make life unpleasant for each other. One person chews with their mouth open, the other person whistles loudly, the first person clatters with the silverware, the second person stomps around the house…

                  Society cannot exist unless people in general are inclined to indulge each other at their own expense, to cover for others’ inevitable weaknesses within reason. This indulgence is called respect, and it is of course not meant to allow people to grow weaker and more fragile, nor is it meant to stifle everyone around a sensitive person. Barren Blauschwartz would be the first to protest that weakness does not and should not confer authority over what people are allowed to do. It is meant to allow them to have more confidence and mental energy to do what they need to do. In order to make this possible, people need to learn empathy, which lets you individualize interactions, move between paradigms, and effectively respect people who are different.

                  Empathy is the antithesis of rules, embracing the idea that you can do what you don’t have to do, and you can also do what you may not be “supposed” to do. Both of these principles show up in the noble technique of finding ways to tell people what they need to hear without making them feel bad. It’s amazing how much you can criticize people if you use empathy and respect. Empathy has a theme of shadows and darkness. If you shadow someone for long enough, moving with them, taking their cues, learning how they see things, then when you move in your own direction, but their way, they will start to follow you. (In Soviet Russia, shadow casts you!)

                  In the future I aim to create, we will teach the skill of empathy in schools (as well as ethical principles like honor and compassion), because it’s not just the obviously socially inept that need help, but also the people who hang out only with their own kind and are clueless with people of different cultures or even different personalities (i.e. most people). Don’t knock the powers of empathy to help people interact with each other, just because you may never seen it yourself. It’s a real (meta-) skill, with real results, and it’s indispensable.

                • Steve-O,
                  We live in an imperfect society and one that you are a part of. Society also has a way of making some of us feel more of an outcast than a desired member. You seem extremely bright and well spoken (not that I agree with all the things that you have written). I imagine you may be even equally gifted as a musician. Music may have been a way that allowed you to mentally “exit” the world for a few hours. Many of us have had dreams and aspirations of doing things or entering careers that somehow never came to fruition. We all try to do the best we can with the challenges we are given in life.
                  A lot of things that “creep us out” are simply things we just don’t understand enough about.

                  • That’s ok, you don’t have to agree with everything I have said, and I know I have said some pretty far out things. I dunno about gifted, but I have no pretensions to doing music for anything other than fun, which is a much healthier attitude than wanting to crack the inner circle.

                    That said, I am also ugly, easily annoyed, and charm-challenged. Growing up it’s tough when everyone knows how to press your buttons and does press them just to see you have a meltdown. Ha ha. Hee hee. It’s SO funny to torture the kid who doesn’t fit in. That said, who always got the blame when he reacted? Bingo. I don’t know how many times I was told to just ignore it, not let it get to me, etc. Here’s a dark secret, though: at least three teachers wanted me shipped off on the short bus because I didn’t fit in, because I was a magnet for trouble, but my parents fought hard to avoid that. Maybe I would have been better off spending my school time making projects with clay and elbow macaroni and my adult days as a school or building custodian, sweeping floors and wiping down windows when no one else was around. The same applies to others who can’t find the self-control or the discipline to keep their problems from affecting others.

    • Uh, students generally don’t talk about suicide because they are selfish. They talk about it because they are depressed, feeling isolated, about ready to be kicked out because of bad grades, etc. I think a little compassion is in order and plenty of them are too embarrassed to talk to a therapist prior to making a suicide attempt. I know as early in my career, I worked as a mental health crisis center after they had made an unsucessful attempt.

    • Discipline would be particularly problematic if the perpetrator acted upon his or her thoughts.

      This school must have a great Psych department. Is it in the U.P?

  3. I am taking this opportunity to be a little snotty. Northern Michigan University is a crappy school. Michigan is full of superior colleges — this is not one of them.

  4. “When you’re down and troubled
    And you need some love and care
    And nothing, nothing is going right
    Close your eyes and think of me
    And soon I will be there
    To brighten up even your darkest night”

    Apparently, none of these Administrators have ever heard Carol King sing these words!!

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