Mount St. Mary’s student survey tried to find out which students were depressed

In the now infamous student survey given out to first year students at Mount St. Mary’s University to determine which bunnies needed to be drowned (=first years needed to be culled), many of the questions focused on the students’ attitudes and mental health. And it some cases it is clear that the questions are direct attempts to assess which students are depressed. Here are screenshots of part of the survey:

Survey 1

Survey 2



And finally, they come right out and ask point blank:

Survey 3


Now, to be clear, I don’t know what anyone’s intent was with these questions. But I do know they were part of this effort:

The president, Simon Newman, acknowledged to The Washington Post that he was pushing a plan to intervene early on with students who may be having difficulties. But he said that this was to help them, although he said that the help in some cases might be for them to see that they might be better off a less expensive public institution.

And I also know that it is illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that there are massive legal – not to mention moral – violations taking place here.

32 thoughts on “Mount St. Mary’s student survey tried to find out which students were depressed

  1. A student whom I taught at Mount St. Mary’s posted this on Facebook and gave permission to share it:

    If I was given a survey in 2008 asking me about my current state of mind, how sad I felt in the week prior, and if I was concerned about my financial responsibilities, I am sure I would have fallen into the category of “students to dismiss” in order to preserve/increase a retention rate… thankfully, I fell in the category of students who received a diploma in 2012.

    Along with the diploma came several invaluable lessons. The Mount taught me what Catholic identity and community really stood for and in the process, revealed to me my own value. I didn’t love Philosophy because I was good at it (I wasn’t), and I didn’t stay at the Mount because I could afford it (thank you loans).. I loved classes and I finished school because I was captivated by what my professors and fellow classmates were teaching me, how they encouraged me, and how eventually, I both wanted and felt wanted to be there. I fell in love with Catholicism and the search for truth and beauty and if I left within the first couple of weeks, I don’t know when I would have found that kind of happiness.

    I succeeded because I picked a small, Catholic, liberal arts school who had exceptional professors who went above and beyond… and now it’s saddening to see what changes are being made in order to fit the right percentages on paper with blatant disregard to the needs of the students and faculty.

    I am angered by Newman’s words and how uncaring and unethical his plan is for the university.

    When I was a junior, I emailed Thomas Powell (the president at the time) on a Sunday asking if I could have dinner with him and his wife and he personally emailed me back within a couple of hours (without having a prior relationship) saying that he would love to have me over and to bring five of my friends. They welcomed us into their home and we talked about movies and what we thought about the Catholic identity and how much we loved the Mount. I want that kind of personal and cared-for experience for future students.
    I am thankful for the professors who are fighting for the preservation of what makes the Mount so unique, all while risking their jobs.

    Please pray for all involved.

  2. I can confirm that you’re correct that it’s most likely illegal– particularly if they’re basing non-retention decisions on students’ learning disabilities and perceived mental health status.

    These are all in violation of ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which applies to the Mount because it is a recipient of federal funding in the form of student loans.

    Students or faculty aggrieved by these practices can file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. They will open a civil rights investigation to see if the Mount’s practice of attempting to cull the bottom 25 students constitutes disparate treatment and/or disparate impact discrimination. If it turns out that the bottom 25 students are persons of color, it may also implicate disparate impact discrimination in violation of the Title VI regulations promulgated by the US DoE.

    Just because they backed off from using the survey doesn’t put the Mount in the clear– the faculty who were targeted for opposing the survey were retaliated against for opposing practices prohibited by Section 504, Title II of ADA, and Title VI.

    Click to access colleague-resourcecomp-201410.pdf

  3. It’s weird to ask people if they’re depressed. In my experience, many people say they are depressed whenever they feel sad. They don’t know the difference unless they have actually been depressed. Just in terms of accuracy (and not the other questions you’re raising), I would hope the other questions would do enough to sort that out, because that first question is pretty useless. Maybe it would show how many people think they are depressed when they aren’t.

  4. As the author so nicely states, “I don’t know what anyone’s intent was with these questions.” So lets review, utilizing the assumption that no one here has a factually supported answer to that question.
    Asking first years questions about their happiness could not be an attempt to determine if they are clinically depressed, but rather if they are happy or not at the Mount, and if they see happiness for themselves at the Mount in the future. This would not be discriminatory based on perceived mental health, but rather catering to a student’s needs, to include a refund if that student determined they weren’t where they belonged.
    Asking about learning disabilities most likely is part of the survey for one purpose: Disqualify those students from the rankings and expedite getting those individuals the learning services help they need and are legally obliged to have. When looked at in this less radicalized light, the legal and moral objections to the survey suddenly disappear with no ground to stand upon. In fact, it seems that the survey may actually be a very helpful tool for first year students.
    Before interpreting the worst feasible reasons behind things, look at the whole picture. It is this type of conclusion-jumping, one-sided coverage that is hurting my school nationally. Please stop. There is so much more to understand about the happenings at the Mount than the media and story commenters care to know.

  5. Thanks so much, Current Mount Student! This Mount Alum supports you and the inevitable change necessary to keep our mountain home flourishing in the future. I too see the survey as an attempt to truly help students who may have trouble adjusting to college and/or life away from home. Keep the faith!

  6. Current Mount Student — I can’t see how the question about learning disabilities could be designed to “disqualify students from the rankings” without also being designed to dismiss those students for having a learning disability, which would be a violation of the ADA and does nothing to get them help or support. Did you have something else in mind?

    Also, as an aside — my impression is that people are discussing this survey as a screening for depression, and not just a questionnaire about student satisfaction, because the questions themselves are typical questions that appear on diagnostic screenings for depression, not questions about whether students are happy at MSM in particular, or whether they have been satisfied with services there, etc. If the real intent was to judge student satisfaction, and not screen for potentially clinically depressed students, this is an awfully strange way to go about it.

  7. Also in reply to Current Mount Student — the survey was given the day after the students moved on to campus. It could not have measured their happiness with the Mount.

  8. Becca H. I think you may have misinterpreted what I was saying by “disqualify them from the rankings.” If a student stated they had a learning disability, then their survey would be removed from the surveys and they would not remain in the rankings for students who may be consulted about leaving the school. The learning disability students would NOT be dismissed. They would be exempted from that rankings. Instead they would arguably better receive the assistance they need. I think the word “disqualify” may have led to this confusion. In short, disability students would not be subjected to the ranking process at all (disqualified from being considered for potential consultation on dismissal, NOT disqualified from the school). Hope that clears things up.

  9. OH GOOD so it’s only non-disabled students (or ones who didn’t self-identify as such) who were going to be dismissed based on how alone and depressed they were feeling. That is awesome. Great plan.

  10. John, I think you are very misled and confused regarding how this plan was intended to work. It has been made very evident that NO STUDENT WAS GOING TO BE DISMISSED UNWILLINGLY. The purpose was to identify students who may not feel the Mount is their best fit and offer them 1) Resources to help make it their best fit and 2) Extend an offer of a refund if THEY THE STUDENT decides the Mount is not their best fit. At no time were students going to be forced to leave the University based on their responses.

  11. It’s also worth pointing out that selectively suggesting to some students – based on identified disability, among other things – that the university might not be a good fit and that it might be in their best interest to go elsewhere could – depending on the context – itself be a form of institutional discrimination, even if the ultimate decision to leave was left in the hands of the students.

  12. It is also worth mentioning that many of these survey questions appear to come straight out of the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale – Revised (CESD-R).

  13. “I felt that people disliked me”
    I hope that a “4” mark to his question was not used a a lone indicator.

  14. Are you soft and fuzzy with a twitchy wikkle nose?

    never or rarely sometimes moderately BLAM!

  15. Current Student: But, as far as I know anyway, none of the questions are about whether the student is satisfied with their MSM experience, or whether they feel like they might be happier if the school were somehow different. The questions are, as others have pointed out, drawn from diagnostic screenings for depression. If that’s so, what is happening is that students are being screened for depression, and some would be asked to leave (or told that MSM “may not be the best fit,” which really amounts to the same thing) on that basis. That is discriminatory, and probably illegal.

    Just to be clear, I don’t think any of us think your school is a bad school. Indeed, some of the people most offended by this seem to be current and former faculty and alumni. The criticism is of the president and the administration, not the school itself.

  16. Current Student and others: While I would have greatly benefited from a genuine depression screening designed to find students who need HELP, that interpretation does not hold water in light of the comments made by your President calling struggling students “bunnies” that needed to be “drowned” or have “Glocks put to their heads.” This kind of thinking is literally why the ADA exists.

  17. The bottom line is that finding a way to get students to self-select out of the school before the time when enrollment statistics are reported is a manipulation of retention figures and makes rhe school look better in the reports, both state and national. The ethics of this whole attempt at manipulation need serious review.
    It’s all about the numbers for retention reports.
    Faculty need to stand up for what is right.
    Veteran Academic

  18. Becca, completely on the same page with you on the direction of the criticisms. The furor is at Newman, not the school. However, outsiders don’t get the full picture. They hear the infamous bunny comment and cry foul, then assume the worst intentions behind anything else Newman says or does. (Prime example would be our good friend John up above here). Even many of those at the school don’t want to give things a fair shake e.g. the Echo turned down Newman’s repeated offers to sit down for an interview prior to their publication of the inflammatory article. When confronted about this, Echo staff claimed Newman’s proposed interview time was “inconvenient.”

    You are correct, the questions do seem to be mostly along the lines of a diagnostic screening. I would venture that it is still not discriminatory because the reason for a student to choose to leave is based on them not being happy at the Mount, not them being depressed. If a student seemed unhappy at the Mount based on the survey but said in their meeting that they were simply going through a rough time, they certainly would not be pressured to leave. I can certainly see the concern over the structure of the questions and agree that more unique formulations could be used (keep in mind this was the first time the survey was used so it wasn’t going to be perfect).

    But the fact remains that the only students who would end up leaving are those who truly want to leave. I can say with full confidence that I can easily think of 20 names from my first year who would have been overjoyed at the opportunity to leave early with a refund.

    This is where it again becomes necessary to point out, this was not an egregious violation of students rights or the law. It is not an issue that merits national attention. It is a new initiative that, like all things new, hasn’t had the chance to be fully worked out in practice. Sadly, thanks to a teardown-minded media and narrow-minded individuals, this potentially beneficial plan, and extraordinarily innovative president, may never get the chance to bring about the immeasurably positive changes that Mount students truly want and MSMU desperately needs.

  19. If the questions are coming from the CESD-R, aren’t the results essentially medical records? If so, they should be confidential, and should not be shared with administrators who are not treating the student. I wonder if FERPA and HIPAA rules apply to this situation.

  20. @Chris Lovell, I was wondering the same thing. I think universities normally don’t fall under HIPAA, but given that they were (without consent) administering psychological testing…

    It seems like it also may be an ethics violation for the psychology professor who developed the survey.

    @Current Mount Student, I completely support efforts to help struggling students. But EVEN IF that was the intent, administering psychological screenings without consent is completely unacceptable, and for a university to do that is absolutely egregious violation of students rights and very possibly the law. Under *the most charitable possible interpretation*, something seriously wrong was done here.

    And that interpretation doesn’t seem all the plausible, because if the goal was to improve retention by connecting students to the needed services, why the secrecy? The CESD-R was developed to be administered under informed consent (since that’s the standard in psychology), so why wasn’t it?

  21. Current Mount, it is not the case that John Schwenkler et al assume the worst intentions on the part of Newman. It is rather that they are responding to Newman’s own reported intention of using the questionnaire data to manipulate the retention rates of the school. You contend, “this was not an egregious violation of students rights or the law. It is not an issue that merits national attention,” but the summary firing of multiple professors would merit national attention no matter where it happens, and in addition, the possibility that students with disabilities were discriminatorily identified as undesirable to the future of retention rates is precisely what is at issue.

  22. Okay, everyone, I have been a quiet reader of this blog for a long time. I am currently terrified. The president just announced that he has decided to extend mercy to the fired faculty and re-instate them. No word about the survey, just that the Board still has complete support in him. This survey was not okay to administer. There are extremely vulnerable students who are aghast and terrified that this data about them exist. I believe that professors were asked to review it personally – as in, the prof leading your freshman seminar!!!! – and recommend students for dismissal. 1-2 students per class, he wanted. Here’s the deal – even though the faculty refused, all that info is still out there. How do we now make sure that the students’ rights are respected? What on earth do you do with this? This is not the only illegal activity Newman and the Board have engaged in, by the way, just the most public one. This is shocking. You can’t run a university this way.

  23. Speaking as a disability rights activist, I said this process would selectively disadvantage disabled students from the moment I heard of it, before any of the details emerged.

    The reason is simple, disabled students historically have the greatest level of difficulty in adapting to university life. They have a greater complexity of needs, and entire additional departments to deal with over and above other students, and often will never have had to manage this for themselves. I’m speaking from experience, outside of lectures I hardly left my room the first few months of my university experience. This survey was absolutely guaranteed to selectively identify disabled students from the moment it was first conceived, even if there were no disability specific questions in it.

    But there are. I want to make a couple of points about the sheer coverage of those questions first. People have been talking about the CESD-R questionairie as specific to mental health, I ‘d guess I’ve filled it in about a dozen times over the years, in relation to how I’m managing the more unpleasant effects of my physical disability. It’s not just the students with mental health issues who’ll be likely to be selected by this, it’s any student with disability. And for those questioning the methodology, its not simply asking ‘Are you depressed?’, the questions are evaluated based on a scoring metric, not individually (I never scored as depressed, but many of the other physically disabled people taking it with me did). WRT ‘Do you have a Learning Disability?’ I’m not sure people are appreciating the breadth of coverage of this question. I’d have to answer yes to it, amongst other things I’m dyspraxic. All of the Specific Learning Difficulties: dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, APD, ADHD etc, together with the Autism Spectrum, can be reasonably considered to be covered by this question. At least some of the students with them will answer yes because they know that, but some will likely answer no, because they don’t, so really good question for picking out the learning disabled students, whatever you plan to do with it.

    CurrentMountStudent would have us believe that these questions are there to exclude disabled students, which is
    a) incredibly naive, disability discrimination is a hell of a lot more common than the non-disabled population believes – I faced career destroying disability discrimination from the senior (up to C-suite level) management of a household name multinational that was simultaneously proclaiming itself a champion of minority workers rights, and my experiences are far from unique, they’re more like typical, so don’t believe a university capable of sacking a tenured professor without due process is incapable of it, it demonstrably is.
    b) assuming a level of competence that is not demonstrated by the questionaire. Those questions have a fairly wide spread across disabled students, but they are in no way sufficient to capture all disabled students, not even all learning disabled students and those with mental health issues, which not selectively disadvantaging them via the rest of the questionaire legally requires the Mount to do. The only question that could do that is ‘Do you believe you are disabled under the terms of ADA?’ (or words to that effect).

    So either the questionaire is meretricious in deliberately misleading students in order to discriminate against them, or merely incompetent in trying to protect them. In either case it still leaves the Mount open to being sued AND exposes the disabled students to ableism.

    I don’t know what Newman imagines he is doing, but it’s definitely not my kind of Catholicism, and it sets all my disability rights hackles on end.

    What’s the Catholic thing to do here? Making sure all the students get the support they need not to drop out.

  24. […] yet. What about the survey itself which, among other things, asked students directly whether they were depressed or had a learning disability? Who, aside from Newman, thought it was a good idea to identify vulnerable people (who could still […]

Comments are closed.