Marvin Krislov is the president of Pace University in New York. He previously served as president of Oberlin College and general counsel at the University of Michigan.
In their first semester at Pace University, all incoming undergraduates take a class we call UNV 101, an introduction-to-college course that teaches them how to be effective students and helps them map their Pace Path, a plan that will guide them through their four years with us and bring them to graduation ready to achieve their career goals. Each year, I teach a section of UNV 101, and I find it a valuable window into the student experience.
Last semester, for the first time, a number of my students weren't turning in their work. And it became clear that their struggle wasn't about the class but rather about everything going on around them. It brought home to me the tremendous mental health challenges our students are now confronting — and how important it is to be understanding about those challenges.
There has been a growing stream of worries in recent years about the state of mental health among college students. In the pandemic, that stream has become a flood. A recent survey showed that a striking 83 percent of students were significantly stressed or anxious since the start of the new academic year. Worse, the survey also found roughly the same number of students do not take advantage of support resources offered to them.
As a higher education leader, I follow these trends and work to address them. But last semester I saw them play out up close. And I heard similar stories from faculty colleagues.
Often, my students were distracted in class. Several didn't complete their assignments. Others missed sessions. And when I reached out to learn why, I found they had very good reasons: responsibilities at home, sick or struggling family members, anxiety and depression. A number of them spoke of visits to the counseling center.
The experience served as a powerful reminder to me of the critical role of compassion.
Those of us who choose to work in education know that we need to be kind and empathetic. The experience of teaching last semester drove home to me that kindness isn't just nice; it's crucial for enabling our students to succeed.
Right now everyone has gone through a lot. The challenges aren't always visible. So we need to be patient. We need to be forgiving.
Most importantly, we need to ask — and to listen.
Teaching UNV 101, I was reminded of the importance of three things.
First, we need to check in with people. Whether that's with the students we're teaching, the staff we're managing, or the faculty we're leading, we need to ask how people are, ask what's going on in their lives, and ask if there are problems that need to be addressed.
Second, we need to stand ready to help. Especially with those who may seem to be struggling, we must avoid criticism or disappointment and instead ask what we can do to provide assistance and support.
Third, we need to emphasize the importance of what we're doing. Whether students or staff, people engage with work that has meaning. They like to be useful, and they want to matter. Helping people to see the importance of their efforts — work, a project, a course — can help them to focus, to engage, to be productive.
The last two years have presented innumerable new challenges. For teachers and for leaders, one of them is the question of demanding accountability. Students still need to complete assignments, and employees still must do their work. But we also need to regularly remember that people are not operating at 100% — and some might be facing even greater struggles than others. We can require that goals and assignments be completed while also being flexible, accommodating and compassionate about obstacles.
Ultimately, it's about being human, being caring and being accommodating.
For both students and staff, those who feel supported — who feel recognized, heard and a valued part of a larger whole — are the most likely to succeed.