Letter to the Editor — NMU must do more for student mental health

Several weeks ago, Northern Michigan University’s Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of higher education for the Montana State University system, as NMU’s next president, with his tenure to start at the beginning of February.

In an encouraging sign for NMU students, Tessman has promised that the university will begin to treat student mental health as a public health issue, rather than an issue solely related to an individual student’s health.

“My approach is really about moving from mental health and wellness as a private or individual challenge toward treating it as a public health challenge,” Tessman said, according to an article published in The North Wind earlier this semester.

Tessman’s comments are consistent with the recommendations contained in an assessment of campus mental health at NMU conducted by Jim Haveman, a former NMU trustee, and the goals described in the NMU Wellbeing Enhancement Plan, which is available on the university’s new Wellbeing website. 

On the surface, NMU appears to be a bastion for promoting student mental health. 

For example, the Haveman Report recommends more involvement by NMU in financing student mental health care and, thus, creating a system where “no student fails to seek behavioral health services because of an inability to pay.” Additionally, the NMU Wellbeing Enhancement Plan calls for re-establishing the university health promotions office, along with administering a survey on student well-being at NMU twice a year.

However, it is important to remember that neither the university’s wellness website nor the Haveman report was created of its own accord, in a vacuum untethered to a precipitating event. These initiatives were formally pursued by the university only after an NMU student’s tragic death on campus by suicide last spring. 

In the aftermath of that tragedy, the NMU Dean of Students Office made the controversial decision to temporarily suspend Dominick Dotson, an NMU student who sent an online survey to other students about mental health issues on campus without first obtaining permission from the NMU Institutional Research Board. The university did not specify how Dotson met any of the conditions required for the imposition of a temporary suspension though, in violation of his constitutional right to procedural due process. 

In a letter to the editor published in The North Wind a couple of weeks after Dotson’s initial suspension, I argued that two administrators in the NMU Dean of Students Office, Mary Brundage, the university’s associate dean of students, and Christine Greer, the university’s assistant vice president and dean of students, should immediately resign their respective positions “because their continued employment with the university presents an ongoing threat to the well-being of the student body.” 

In calling for their resignations, I recounted how they — as the administrators ultimately responsible for the office’s performance — violated the constitutional and federal statutory rights of NMU students on multiple occasions over the past decade and a half, including illegally discriminating against students with mental disorders, which eventually resulted in a legal settlement with the United States Department of Justice in 2018. 

While the three charges brought by the NMU Dean of Students Office against Dotson were (quietly) dropped in late May, with scant media coverage in The Mining Journal — and no coverage in The North Wind whatsoever — Greer and Brundage continue to be gainfully employed by the university. And they have yet to apologize for their conduct over the years.

Notwithstanding Tessman’s positive comments in recent weeks about his plans to address student mental health at NMU, this state of affairs raises a disturbing question: Does Northern Michigan University — that is, a majority of the university’s board of trustees, along with various administrators who implement the university’s policies — actually care about the mental health of its student body? 

To paraphrase the late comedian, George Carlin, this is not a rhetorical question — rather, it is a moral one. And like him, I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer from my interlocutor.

From my perspective, the NMU Board of Trustees is more concerned with having a public image showing that it cares about the mental health of its students than with doing the challenging, unglamorous and often overlooked work needed to successfully tend to the mental health care needs of its students.

This should not come as much of a surprise when you consider the fact that the current chair of the university’s board of trustees, Stephen Young, once was the “lead tax lobbyist for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce,” where he tried to persuade Michigan state legislators to vote for lower tax rates on large business corporations while also telling the general public that his employer, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, was working hard to lower tax rates for Michiganders of average wealth.

And to paraphrase the late Carlin again, I think most reasonable people would agree with me that, when it comes to actually protecting the constitutional and statutory rights of students with mental disorders lately, the NMU Dean of Students Office has at the very least been incompetent and, maybe, just maybe, hasn’t really given a shit — which would explain many of the shitty (not to mention illegal) actions taken by the Dean of Students Office over the past decade and a half, some of which have even been covered by national media outlets.

What NMU needs are concrete resources to ensure that students’ mental health needs are regularly met, such as providing in-person and remote counseling to students for free. And the university needs an integrated approach — one that all university leaders and personnel embrace and promote — to effectively improve student mental health at NMU. But with Greer and Brundage still on campus, an integrated approach to student mental health at NMU will remain impossible to achieve.     

Aaron Loudenslager, former North Wind opinion editor (2012)

Editor’s Note: The North Wind is committed to offering a free and open public forum of ideas, publishing a wide range of viewpoints to accurately represent the NMU student body. This piece is a letter to the editor, written by a reader of the North Wind in response to North Wind content. It expresses the personal opinions of the individual writer, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the North Wind. The North Wind reserves the right to avoid publishing letters that do not meet the North Wind’s publication standards. To submit a letter to the editor contact the opinion editor at [email protected] with the subject North Wind Letter.