January 1, 2022, marked my first anniversary as Dean of The Business School at WPI. Honestly, I was ready to regale with all the many accomplishments of the first year. After all, we have been successful, having accomplished much that we set out to do. But this idea faded to insignificance as we recently learned of the deaths of two precious WPI students, one of whom died by suicide. Our accomplishments are meaningless in the face of these losses, for students are the most important aspect of all that we endeavor to do.
The WPI Mental Health and Well-Being (MHWB) Task Force has been earnestly working to amass the data from more than 1,100 responses to a community-wide survey, a series of town hall-style listening sessions, and other feedback from students, faculty, and staff. A web page providing a report and task force updates can be found here. Their work continues and the many recommendations that have emerged from the surveys are being considered and planned for prioritized implementation.
As that work progresses, The Business School is also looking at ways to help. Leaders of The Business School have attended each Business School class, graduate and undergraduate, that is being offered during C Term and the Spring semester to introduce ourselves. So many students sought out The Business School administrators for help with challenges at the end of the previous term or semester, and we recognized we can play an important role in actively helping our students. The thought was that if students knew The Business School administrators and had a relationship with us, then we could be another resource for them at the first sign of difficulty. Our students appreciated meeting us, and so too did our faculty. Several contacted me and said that they had never had the Dean visit their classes.
In Professor Wally Towner’s Achieving Effective Operations class, for example, what was to be a quick introduction turned into a two-hour listening session. I returned to the class days later to capture dozens of concerns and suggestions from the students, which have been shared with the COVID Emergency Response Team (CERT) and MHWB Task Force. Similarly, The Business School administration held a listening session with Business School students. During that session, students echoed many of the suggestions included in the Task Force findings—such as a need for greater student engagement, improving asynchronous learning, the need for specific classes to be offered more frequently, and addressing the stress that comes from the pace of a seven-week term. While students did not suggest that they wanted the term session to change, they felt more tools and support, like executive function coaching and more focused academic advising, were needed to help students, especially those in their first year, adjust to the pace and maintain balance.
In sum, we in The Business School are fully engaged in the critical work to support the mental health and well-being of our students. Importantly, we continue to dedicate ourselves to that high touch experience with program staff who initiate contact with students, professors who recognize student distress, and administrators who recognize that the most important work we do is being in relationship with our students.
I sincerely hope that next year, on my second anniversary as Dean, when I sit down to write I will be able to share all our accomplishments, and ideally the top one will be how we have succeeded in supporting the mental health and well-being needs of our students.
Rev. Debora Jackson