On the Friday afternoon following the death of College senior Nicholas Moya, staff members from Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and Student Intervention Services visited the kitchen of the Sigma Delta Tau chapter house, where members of the sorority gathered together, sharing hugs and warm pizza.
The Penn administrators — who were there to offer support to members of a sorority identified as close enough to Moya's fraternity to warrant a visit of its own — introduced themselves and discussed the various resources they could provide to students in need. When the administrators asked for questions, however, they were met with the complaints of students frustrated by the University's inconsistency in communicating student deaths.
When a student dies on campus, only a section of the Penn community is informed. In 2016, students criticized University administrators for the way they communicated the death by suicide of Wharton junior Olivia Kong. The joint offices of Penn President Amy Gutmann and former Provost Vincent Price initially sent an email to all undergraduates, stating that an unnamed undergraduate junior had died in an “accident.” Less than an hour later, Wharton students received another email from Vice Dean of Wharton Lori Rosenkopf identifying Kong by name.
Students were critical of these mixed messages, prompting the Provost's Office to change Penn's policy of "episodic" notifications to a more systematic approach last year.
Now, in the case of an undergraduate death, all undergraduate students are sent an email notification from the Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, though faculty members do not receive this notification. As a result, faculty members are often not informed of a student death until hours and sometimes days after undergraduates are.
The recent death of Moya, who is the 14th student to die by suicide since 2013, has brought renewed attention to this decentralized policy.
President of Sigma Delta Tau and College senior Elizabeth Heit said she was shocked when on the day of Moya’s death, one of her professors, who Heit described as “deeply caring and nurturing,” went on with class as if nothing had happened. Heit later learned that this was because her professor had not received an email regarding Moya’s death.
Later that same day, around 5 p.m., Heit reached out to a professor in another undergraduate school who she shared a close relationship with. Again, she realized that the professor had no idea about Moya's death.
Penn sent an email regarding Moya's death to all undergraduates at 9:37 a.m. on Sept. 1, but did not notify faculty or staff in any comprehensive way.
Rob Nelson is the executive director for education and academic planning at the Provost’s Office, which is responsible for sending out notifications of student deaths. He said only selected faculty members were informed on Moya's death the day after it occurred.
“Our initial effort is very much focused on students’ family members, and other students who are close to the student [who has died],” Nelson said. “Sometimes that includes staff members and professors, advisors … anyone who’s close to the student, we try to identify them.”
Faculty members are only notified of a student death at the same time as other undergraduate students if the individual who died was a current student of theirs, said Director of Media Relations for the University Ron Ozio, in an email.
After undergraduates and relevant professors have been notified, the deans of the various undergraduate schools decide on the faculty members with whom they would like to share the news.
After Moya's death, some professors in the College of Arts and Sciences received an email from Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Steven Fluharty the same day that undergraduates were informed, while others were only notified of what happened days later.
Psychology professor Ayelet Ruscio, said she received an email that was timestamped at 3:46 p.m., over six hours after all undergraduates were informed.
Scott Barry Kaufman, a lecturer in the psychology department, first learned about Moya’s death through his students. The only correspondence he recalls receiving from the administration was an email on Sept. 5, almost a week after Moya’s death.
The email, which came from Sonya Gwak, the director of Student Life and Undergraduate Education, informed him that one of his students in his "Introduction to Positive Psychology" seminar — the only course at Penn dedicated to students’ mental wellbeing — was close to Moya and was unable to attend to his schoolwork.
Spokespersons from the Wharton School, School of Nursing and the School of Engineering and Applied Science declined to comment on whether their respective faculties were notified.
Professors may hear directly from the administration if their student is experiencing particularly acute distress in light of a classmate’s death. This notice comes only after Counseling and Psychological Services works with Student Intervention Services to determine which students are struggling with grief or trauma in the wake of their peer's death.
“Concentric circles between friends and acquaintances develop when we think about who was affected in the case of a student death,” Director of CAPS Bill Alexander said.
CAPS Director of Outreach and Prevention Meeta Kumar added that some students “self-identify and reach out.”
CAPS customizes the way it offers support to each affected student. Through a combination of “hearsay” and conversations with other students, they identify affected students and contact them out of clinical concern, Alexander said. In some cases, professors of students are also contacted.
But this notification process is frequently delayed, largely because CAPS doesn't have direct access to any student listservs. They have to rely on students and faculty to give them access to these listservs.
Kaufman said the way the administration communicates student deaths to faculty is “mind-boggling.”
“I think it is essential that professors are aware of the social life of the students,” he said.
“I’ve been in situations where students just found out [about a death of a classmate in the past],” he said, adding that he wants to understand why students need to excuse themselves from his class and be able to support them.
Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering and Chair-elect of the University Faculty Senate Santosh Venkatesh had a different opinion.
“I think [the Provost’s Office does] as good a job as can be done under the circumstances,” he said. “I really don’t have any qualms or quibbles with it.”
“Penn tends to foster this whole Penn community thing, but that doesn’t work if you’re separating the schools [in] the way that they’re doing [it],” College senior Elana Waldstein said, adding that Penn places an undue burden on students by requiring them to tell their professors the news.
“To have to be in that position the day of grieving your friend, and even a week later, to have to still explain that to your teachers, I think that’s irresponsible of the schools," she said. "If [the administration is] not telling half of the school, or leaving it up to different people to notify their professors [of the student death] when it’s someone from the Penn community, then that’s not a community."
College junior Max Schechter, a peer counselor for Penn Benjamins — the University’s first and only student-run counseling group — said notifying all faculty of a student death is just a step towards improving campus mental health and promoting healing among students who are grieving.
Schechter also said he believes professors should be trained by CAPS in active listening and resource referral in the same way that Penn Benjamins are, and that professors should be involved throughout “the whole process” of promoting students mental health, which entails receiving the same notification that undergraduates do when a student dies.
Nelson said the Provost’s Office is currently reviewing the procedure on communicating student deaths to faculty members.
“Certainly the communication to faculty is an issue that surfaced with the most recent death, but every time this happens, we look at our processes and protocols,” he said.
“I think it’s really important to balance the competing interests and needs of students and faculty who are members of the Penn community with the people who are closest to the student who has passed away, and that means sometimes that we don’t necessarily broadcast a lot of information that’s going on,” Nelson said.
“That information gap can lead to some frustration but we’re always looking at how we approach these issues with the idea of doing it better next time," he added.
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