Promotion of Student Health and Wellbeing on College Campuses

Today's college students, starting the fall semester across the country, roll their eyes when parents and grandparents recollect the rules and regulations that governed our campus life a generation and more ago. Dress codes. Parietal hours. Three feet on the floor. Dorm proctors to enforce curfews.

On most college campuses such rules fell by the wayside in the sixties and seventies as norms of personal conduct were liberalized. Many institutions, including Cornell, have adopted a philosophy of freedom with responsibility -- giving students the freedom to choose their own actions but holding them responsible for the choices they make. Coed dorms and key card access are now pretty much standard, and it is not uncommon for students to stay out all night -- whether to study or to party -- without anyone giving it a second thought.

Nonetheless, I believe that colleges and universities must do more to promote the health and wellbeing of our students. As self-reliant as many of them may seem, undergraduates are still "emerging" adults, susceptible to peer pressure and inclined to engage in risky behavior. And like all of us, they can make poor decisions, suffer from injuries, stress and emotional turmoil.

Here are a few areas where I believe we in higher education need to step up our efforts:

High-risk drinking: Alcohol is the most widely used drug on college campuses. Most students drink moderately or not at all, but high-risk drinking can compromise the safety of the drinker and those around him or her. Many schools disseminate data to correct students' misperceptions about what "everyone" is doing. These efforts have resulted in a significant decrease in heavy drinking at many schools -- as much as 44 percent over 10 years in one instance.

A broader "environmental management approach" includes prevention strategies. At Cornell and elsewhere restrictions are placed -- and enforced -- on the use of alcohol at fraternity and sorority events, and medical amnesty ("Good Samaritan") policies have encouraged bystanders to call 911 when individuals are severely intoxicated or injured after using alcohol or other drugs.

We know, however, that more needs to be done. With that in mind, the National College Health Improvement Project's Learning Collaborative on High Risk Drinking, which involves 32 colleges and universities nationwide, is working with researchers at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice to discover what works best in preventing alcohol abuse. I am hopeful that this comprehensive approach to discovering and sharing best practices among campuses will reduce high-risk drinking among our students.

Hazing: Although 44 states have laws against hazing, and hazing is also prohibited in the campus codes of many colleges and universities, around 55 percent of college students across the country report having been hazed in fraternities, sororities, athletic teams, or other student groups, and nearly half experienced hazing in high school.

After a Cornell student died at a fraternity house in a hazing episode that included mock kidnapping, ritualized humiliation and coerced drinking as part of the pledging process, I directed student leaders of Cornell's Greek chapters to develop a system of member recruitment and initiation that does not involve the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership. Our student leaders, staff professionals and alumni are now developing alternative models. We have a comprehensive anti-hazing website and recently launched a campaign to give students strategies to protect themselves and help change the culture of hazing. The bottom-line message, which needs to be heard on all college campuses: "Hazing hurts and is unnecessary. There are many ways for groups to bond without it."

Mental health promotion: College students, like all of us, can experience a great deal of stress from family problems, interpersonal relationships, the rigors of academic work, or other issues. And thanks to better diagnosis and treatment, more students with mental health conditions are enrolling in college.

We in higher education need to take a comprehensive approach to mental health promotion, encouraging students to ask for help when they need it, educating the campus community about how to notice and respond effectively when someone is in distress, and fostering emotional resilience so that students are better able to bounce back from the setbacks.

Concussion prevention: As I wrote in my Huff Post blog last November, an estimated 300,000 sports-related traumatic brain injuries, most of them concussions, occur annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the college sports season ramps up this fall, we need to take preventive and therapeutic action to keep our players safer while retaining the excitement and competitiveness of their sports.

To this end, the presidents of the Ivy League have adopted significant changes to the way our football teams practice and play. We are now examining other sports such as soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse, for both men and women.

The Ivy League and Big Ten Conference have begun a joint research project to examine and address head injuries among athletes. While we await the results of this research, I urge coaches, administrators and other involved with college sports to make modifications in their practice regimens and their requirements for protective equipment in order to reduce the likelihood of concussions or other traumatic brain injuries and to recognize the need for and importance of cognitive rest following a concussion.

Colleges and universities in New York and other states do not have a legal responsibility to protect their students from their own risky behavior or the risky behavior of other students. And try as we might, it would be impossible to remove all potential risk.

Nonetheless, colleges and universities need to think creatively about the nearly intractable challenges of hazing, high-risk drinking, suicides, concussions, and other risks. Together with parents, community leaders, legislators, and students themselves, we must tackle these issues more aggressively. While students will always be faced with risky choices -- and some will continue to exercise poor judgment -- colleges can and should fulfill their educational missions by promoting safety through education and the provision of support services that will assist students in exercising their freedom responsibly.