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The Scarlet & Black

Letter: Self-governance’s shortcomings

A recent survey has shown Grinnell students to be more stressed, depressed and suicidal than students nationwide and at Grinnell’s peer institutions. These findings begged one question: why? After some research, it was decided that the primary difference between Grinnell and its peers is the format of Grinnell’s calendar. The idea is that longer semesters and longer stretches between breaks lead to higher stress.  While it is true that Grinnell’s calendar is “tougher” than  that of many peers, the difference, in my opinion, does not seem great enough to have a substantial influence on the stress of Grinnell students.

Moreover, restructuring the calendar is not an easy task. For years, the calendar has been auto-generated from an algorithm developed by our own Henry Walker (Computer Science). And every few years, talk of changing the calendar has cropped up. Yet, the algorithm remains unchanged. The main barricade to change is the difficulty for faculty to shuffle syllabi and reschedule lab sessions. This problem stands today. The reorganizing of the calendar would take an immense amount of work, so if we plan to undertake it, we had better make sure that its shortcomings are the cause of our stress and anxiety.

To me, there appears to be a more predominant culprit. When my friends, many of whom are enrolled at peer institutions, visit Grinnell, they are consistently impressed by the drug and alcohol use at Grinnell. For example, 10/10 would not fly at most schools, including our peers. It amazes me to see Security officers walk passed a game of beer pong between obviously-underage students with a simple smile and a nod. I think such general practices tend to emerge from a community that demands self-governance as a cornerstone. In fact, its probably impossible to have our level of self-gov with a stricter Security department.

While I adore the idea of self-governance and applaud its frequent success, I do think that it allows for more alcohol and drug use than is healthy. This is not a recent feature of Grinnell’s culture—there’s even a rumor that a few decades ago, at any one time,  somewhere around 70 percent of Grinnellians were tripping acid. While mental health surveys are a recent development, I believe that had they existed decades ago, they would have shown Grinnell students to regularly be more stressed and depressed than peers at other colleges (even before the current calendar was implemented).

The ease of obtaining and using alcohol and drugs at Grinnell is, in all likelihood, causing more frequent use. This high frequency makes it more likely for students to get behind in class, which, inevitably, leads to poorer mental health. It is often argued that substance abuse stems from feelings of being overwhelmed and a need to blow off steam. However, I posit that even if stress could be temporarily eliminated, it would quickly reemerge because drug and alcohol abuse would continue throughout the stressless period. Students will always use substances to the full extent that self-gov and Security’s oversight allow.

It seems to me that self-governance, as it stands now, is not dealing well with alcohol and drug abuse, and this, not the academic calendar, is the root of Grinnell’s strain and melancholia. Either self-governance needs to grow to handle this issue, or we need to work with Security to redefine what alcohol and drug practices are acceptable. If nothing else, we need to take a closer look at the effects of substance use on mental health rather than assuming that it is a byproduct of stress and depression. We need to do this before spending more time and energy on restructuring the academic calendar.
Editor’s Note: Due to the nature of the author’s public position on campus, they asked that their name be withheld to protect their professional relationships. The Editors of the S&B discussed this matter, and decided that the specific student’s concerns were legitimiate, given the small environment in which they work.

General S&B protocol is to not publish letters anonymously. The publishing of this letter does not imply an endorsement of the author’s views, but instead a desire to open discussion in a way that allows the initiating party to continue their professional and academic life without disruptive consequences.

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