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Penn professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Biology Arthur Dunham made a controversial comment in his lecture, especially in light of the recent death of Wharton junior Ao “Olivia” Kong by suicide. | DP File Photo

  Penn, like many Ivy League schools, has grappled with the impact of academic pressure on students’ mental health.

The difficulty and complexity of the issue resurfaced last week when Penn professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Biology Arthur Dunham made a comment in his lecture that several students found to be insensitive, especially given the recent death of Wharton junior Ao “Olivia” Kong by suicide.

In his April 13 lecture, when Dunham was explaining grading policies and whether students should decide to take a particular exam, he made this comment to the class, which was included in the professor’s recording of the lecture, which he posted to Canvas:

“Some people are delirious if they’re getting a B or a B+. Some people want to go out and jump off a bridge if they’re getting a B or a B+, I can’t judge that,” he said. “So you’ve got to decide what you can settle for and all of that. I take no personal responsibility for any suicides that happen as a result of my grading.” 

“I would like to profoundly apologize for what was a flippant and ill-considered comment concerning choices about whether to take the last exam. I regret having said what I did, especially at this particular time given recent events,” he wrote. “My comment was insensitive and, normally, I would never have said anything like that. It just came out.”

He added, “It was a frivolous comment comparing two hypothetical students who got a B in a course. I was simply not thinking of recent events or of the context in which they were heard. I am truly sorry for the pain I caused.”

One student, who asked to remain anonymous since she is currently enrolled in Dunham’s class, felt that he’d trivialized the sensitive campus discussion about mental health.

“It seemed like he was being very condescending and implying that all of us are making a big deal out of nothing when he doesn’t know what kind of hardships she was going through,” the student said. “I felt offended because [Kong] was my friend and it felt like he trivialized her experiences to something like she couldn’t handle getting a B.”

Dunham elaborated in his apology on the meaning of his comment.

“It was [in response to]a query about whether to take an exam in a course in which a grade is dropped,” he wrote. “The decision to drop an exam is meant to be a stress reduction device that provides students with more options and flexibility. It’s not a decision worthy of great anxiety.” Dunham encouraged students to talk to him about issues with his comment “publicly or privately,” writing, ”We have an open door policy in this course as reflected by the extensive office hours (12 hours in the 3 days before the last exam) and the range of topics discussed topics during those office hours.”

Chair of the Department of Biology Brenda Casper issued a statement about Dunham’s comment after being contacted by the DP, stating, “While we recognize that Prof. Dunham was within his rights in the conduct of his class, we acknowledge that his remarks are inconsistent with our equally important commitment to our students’ well-being.”

The February 2015 report from the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare acknowledged that academic life at Penn can be very stressful.

The report cited the “drive for academic excellence along with the perception that to be successful one needs to hold leadership roles in multiple realms” as contributing to the “amount of stress and distress experienced by Penn students.”

The crux of Dunham’s comment — that students often are not content with slightly lesser grades — was also highlighted in the report.

“We found that students often have trouble coping when they receive anything other than a perfect grade,” the task force wrote. “We also heard accounts of the negative impact of seeking to join and not being accepted by groups or organizations that have selection criteria.”

Casper added that the Department of Biology will educate faculty and staff about mental health.

“We will continue working with all members of our community to encourage and empower them to help make students aware of the many resources available when support is needed,” she said.

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