By Matthew Grattan (BSE ’19)
In a recent email to engineering faculty, The Engineering Student Council asked professors to “categorically avoid” jokes regarding suicide. According to the letter, students have come forward with reports that professors have suggested to students who performed poorly on assignments that they should kill themselves.
In a meeting on Jan. 22, ESC representatives voted 16-2 to approve the final wording of the letter, which was emailed to engineering professors on Feb. 24.
While the majority of ESC backed the letter, the few dissenters regarded the letter as a “ban on hyperbole” and questioned its efficacy. The council debated the letter for almost an hour on the letter before pushing a vote. Typical meetings run for approximately one hour in total and cover several topics: Discussion of this one issue was not taken lightly.
An instance of a professor making a joke about suicide was first brought up at the final ESC meeting of last semester, and the council decided to draft an open letter to be voted on at the first meeting of this semester.
Critics seemed hesitant to approve a letter they saw as policing the speech of only a few members of the engineering faculty, but proponents felt it was necessary to release the statement, given an occurrence of suicide at The Cooper Union last year.
The reported incident regarding suicide jokes did not mention specific names, and it was unclear when it happened. There was no indication that more immediate steps were taken to address the scenario like speaking with the professor or bringing the issue to student affairs or the administration.
However, the letter was not about a specific instance: It was about how students and faculty in the engineering should approach mental health and suicide. The majority opinion of ESC was that suicide should not be taken lightly—especially in a classroom setting.
The letter asserts that the faculty have a responsibility “to be aware of how their words affect students” and that they should maintain a “healthy” and “academically challenging” pedagogy. Implicitly, the letter seeks to establish these professional standards by requesting that jokes about suicide be removed from common vernacular.
Representatives who opposed the resolution were quick to point out the absence of a link between suicide jokes and instances of suicide. But the letter was not about causation—or even correlation. The letter was about making Cooper Union a more inclusive, supportive environment. In the opinion of many ESC representatives and students, that begins in the classroom.