An Interview with Jonathan Lash

WARNING: the following contains references to drugs and the death of a student. 

 

Kenzo: The reason we called this meeting today is we wanted to have a conversation with you about opioid addiction on campus because of the recent passing of Will Wright.

JL: was really awful.

Kenzo: yeah. It’s very sad. And I think at Hampshire we have a higher proportion of students who have drug problems and who have overdosed and so we wanted to know how Hampshire’s reputation as a drug school sort of, we wanted to know how aware of it you are and what steps are being done to reduce that reputation or reduce the number of students who do drugs at Hampshire.

JL: Mmhmm. So, I’m acutely aware. Remember that I go to bed every night worrying about every one of you. I just worry constantly that somebody’s gonna make a mistake and it’s gonna cost them their lives. And when Halloween used to be, well you were here when it was still a really big event. I used to meet with students every year before the event and try to talk about keeping yourself safe and so forth. We’ve tried to ramp up the amount of training we’re doing and the range of services that are available. We’ve been doing training with the RAs, and intend to do much more. A couple of years ago we made the decision to equip all of the campus police with narcon. ‘Cause that’s such an obvious available remedy. We’re trying to help RAs who want to get access to that do that. We’re bringing a series of people to campus to help us talk about opioids and the process which appears to have happened which is as the nation clamped down on the supply of painkiller drugs the heroin supply rocketed up, creating much greater dangers for students. We’re also gonna do a lot of work with the faculty. The faculty are really concerned, want to be able to support students. But I’m totally open if you guys have ideas, of things you wish we were doing, to talk about that.

Amy: were you at the faculty meeting last Tuesday?

JL: I was. I raised the issue at the faculty meeting last Tuesday.

Amy: we’ve heard there were some tensions there. Can you give us your take on what happened?

JL: I talked about what had happened and the fact that Will’s death was really the most recent in a set. The others that were really worrying me were not things we could have controlled. One was doing a semester of his own research, there was a young alum, there was the son of a staff member who’d had long time drug problems and who died of an overdose all in the period of a few weeks. But I talked about the fact that this is for me a very very personal, and deep concern. I talked about some of the things that were going on, and a faculty member, commented—I don’t feel comfortable repeating names but a faculty member commented that she’d like to see more happening from student life. But student life wasn’t there to talk about all the things that they’re doing.

Amy: And you’d mentioned RAs. How do you see the role of RAs working in relation to this? Because that’s something that’s’ come up a lot, there’s a balance between sending the RAs to babysit us, and what you can expect of a college student to do.

JL: My concern is that RAs are there. And they’re on the front lines. And for many students they’re sort of the first point of contact so we don’t want to leave them without trying to give them as much support as possible. But the RAs shouldn’t be the main way that we’re trying to support and help students. I mean I would love it if we could have discussions with all of the students on campus to just talk about, do you understand what these things do and how can we support you, but I don’t really have the power to bring everybody to meetings like that. We’ll certainly provide the opportunity for people to learn more. We’re gonna bring a woman who’s a physician in Greenfield, named Ruth Potee. I don’t know if you’ve seen her stuff. There are a couple of talks she does on YouTube. It’s very very serious very scientific but really powerful ‘cause it’s not judgmental at all. She treats it as a disease. She’s trying to explain what are the physical mechanisms by which addiction is created and why does it have such an impact on people. She’s saying this isn’t something you can deal with by punishment, this is something you have to deal with with treatment and support. So take a look at her stuff if you want and let me know what you think.

Amy: We’d had the impression that faculty were in many ways, didn’t… weren’t sure how to handle it when a student is, when they get a sense that a student is having trouble of that magnitude. So what’s the process when a faculty member has concerns about a student and then what’s your ideal for what would happen, in an ideal world, when a faculty member has concerns about a student?

JL: So, actually there was only I think there was only one faculty comment when I talked about this at the faculty meeting so I don’t know what people were thinking. I’ve talked to some people after the meeting. And I think they like I have a very strong sense of anxiety and responsibility. You’re their students, you’re our students, we feel you’re here and we have a responsibility to try to support and help you avert danger. And I think we’re all struggling to think how could we be involved and what could we do, but I think the front lines are the student life staff and they’re certainly pretty overwhelmed this year and doing all they possibly can. But they are the first point of contact for faculty who are concerned.

Amy: ‘cause it’s always been my impression that faculty would be more likely [than Student Life]  to know if there’s a problem.

JL: so you would know more about that than I do. Um, CASA might also be a point of contact if it had an academic consequences. And since I haven’t spoken to every faculty member I don’t know where people are but I do have the feeling that there’s a hunger for more information and more opportunities for them to think about how they can be involved.

Treat: For whom? For faculty or for res life?

JL: For faculty. I felt particularly in the people I talked to after the meeting that they’re looking for what can they do.

Treat: Yeah. But I think the opposite situation might happen or have happened as well? Where someone on faculty feels like they have reached the point that they’re capable in their professional position to help a student? Who do they reach out to? Have you had any conversations about that?

JL: So I can’t generalize. But I certainly know that faculty look for student affairs, student life to have some means of responding. I don’t know if that’s always the case. I know it’s at least sometimes the case.

Amy: Byron was talking about student-faculty meetings, student only meetings, where a concern could be addressed. Are there plans in the works for having those conversations? Can we expect a date>

JL: So I don’t want to… yes there are plans in the works but I don’t know how far along Byron is.

Amy: Yeah it just sounded like a hypothetical when we were talking about it on Friday. We can follow up with Byron but we thought it was worth asking you.

JL: Oh I don’t think It’s a hypothetical. Again we’re all searching for what we can do that would be most helpful. And if you follow the literature unfortunately you’ll look at other campuses and a lot of sort of big publicity campaign type things, and they don’t have much impact. So we’re looking for ways that would actually mean something to students.

Kenzo: Yeah it’s definitely tough. I mean ‘cause also there’s a big party culture on Hampshire campus. I would say it’s a thing. But I feel like it’s being cracked down on in a way, by campo who destroyed the woods party structure and the dog kennels, and I feel like it’s hard to sort of separate what party culture and what heroin use are because no one’s doing heroin at a party as far as I’m concerned, you know? And I feel like even the outreach for that would look completely different. And I’m just wondering what the difference between cracking down on party culture and cracking down on heroin use would be from a policy enforcement perspective.

JL: yeah I think the point you’re making that party culture and opioid abuse are totally different things is valid. Um, and I guess… I… I’m not personally aware that there is some change in policy and effort to crack down on party culture, I’m certainly really committed to keeping people safe. And if one of the ways people hurt themselves is with alcohol, so since we know that we’re never gonna be able to persuade students never to use alcohol, we’d like to do as much as we can to make sure they’re safe. I’d, I don’t know quite how to express this. I recognize that people who are eighteen to twenty something are going to experiment a lot. And that Hampshire actively looks for students who want to experience things and push boundaries. At the same time I just, I’m terrified of the idea that you’re going to kill yourselves. So finding a way to accept both those things is not easy.

Amy: Are there any plans to do sort of an awareness campaign about carfentanil? ‘cause a lot of people just don’t know that heroin has become so much more dangerous in the last—I mean it’s only been in the last few months, it’s’ such a recent thing.

JL: I don’t know the answer. That sounds reasonable.

Kenzo: I think that at times like this, community is very important and I’ve personally been trying to think of a way to bring students together, and it seems to me like a lot of people have concerns that they’d like to share. And so I think, I don’t know, it’d definitely be good to have a way of students and faculty collaborating on some way of figuring this out, you know what I mean?

Amy: one concern that students have had is overreach by the administration. So how do you guys find that balance of, you know, ‘cause it’s not going to work if students don’t trust you, right, if students think you’re looking for a way to get rid of them if they do drugs or if they think everyone in the administration they talk to is going to then turn them in to res life. So how do you guys go about finding that balance between taking care of students and acting like you’re babysitting students?

JL: Yeah. I’m not really the one to answer that because that’s getting answered by individual faculty members all the time. For one area of student life that has nothing to do with opioids, under title IX, the federal government has basically taken away that discretion and said if you receive a report you must pass it on. So there’s no choice. So far as I know there is no corresponding legal obligation with respect to drug use but there’s a tremendous sense of responsibility, right? I personally don’t want to be a policeman, I want to be a college president. Doing that effectively means that I have to be able to talk to students. At the same time if I see something that scares me, that someone may harm themselves, I feel a sense of obligation. I don’t know that there’s ever a way of having a general rule to address that. And it’s going to be different person to person unless, I’m just trying to answer honestly here… if you three were to say ‘let us tell you about our experience with drugs,’ um, and I didn’t hear anything that scared me that it was out of control, I’d just say ‘uh huh, that’s really helpful to me.’ If one of you looked like you were about to lose it and somebody stayed back and said, well she’s really in trouble, I’d be really torn about what to do. But we’re not looking for excuses to get rid of people.

Amy: And in terms of the administration how do you guys view heroin culture on campus? Like what’s your understanding of how it works? How it’s happening?

JL: so I don’t have the basis to understand the culture I just know it’s present. And that students are taking this risk. But I couldn’t answer to what the culture is.

Amy: so if I was like, an administrator from another college, and said ‘hey so what’s the deal with heroin at YOUR school,’ what would you say?

JL: I would say it’s certainly present. I don’t know of a campus in the valley where it’s not present. And we’re doing everything we can to help students make themselves safe. I mean, it’d be totally ridiculous to say it wasn’t. And I just, I mean the wave of heroin coming up the northeast corridor and arriving at New England has been really obvious for about four or five years. My daughter, my youngest daughter is a physician. And she practiced for a couple of years in Athol, which is a very poor community at the north end of the Quabbin reservoir. And she’s  a family practice physician who also delivers babies. And she was in the hospital one night having done a delivery, and it was in July, and the new residents had just—the new shift of residents takes place each year in July and so there was a new resident who was responsible for the hospital late one Saturday night. And she was just emerging exhausted from having done this delivery. And a big guy comes walking in with a body over his shoulder. And comes into the emergency room and tosses a body down on the gurney. And the resident who is just been there a week is you know, my god we gotta start doing tests what is this is he dead. And the nurse looks at my daughter and says “5 CCs?” and my daughter says “Eh he’s bigger than that, probably 10.” And the nurse goes and gets the narcon, shoots him up, the guy starts, and gets up off the gurney and walks out and the resident is totally shocked. But in Athol, a couple years ago, the nurse just responded. That was the point at which I started getting really worried. If it’s that present all around us.

Kenzo: yeah. It’s very scary.

JL: so what… do you have things that you wish I were thinking about or talking about?

Kenzo: we kind of just wanted to see what you were aware of as far as this whole issue goes. Because we just don’t know. Because there’s a stigma, but I think it’s important for us to be able to having an open conversation with you about something that is so stigmatized just because students need to know that we’re trying, you know.

Amy: You talk to students on campus, since we’ve been doing this I’ve been asking people I know, and they’re either like ‘oh yeah heroin’ or they’re like ‘what I didn’t even know this was a thing on this campus.’

Treat; it seems like we, I mean obviously talk to one another and it’s very clear, at least now that faculty are talking about this as well, but um, you know, like especially in connection with students deaths which is understandable but it seems there’s this kind of official silence between, you all and us all. And we thought we might be in a position to try and break that a little.

JL: I really appreciate that. There is no intentional official silence but we might not know what to say. I talked to Will’s dad the next day. And it was a really difficult conversation, and I can’t imagine what they’re going through.

Amy: You talk about setting up meetings, right, and that’s obviously a really good thing but how do you see reaching out, and what are some things being discussed to reach out to students that wouldn’t go to those meetings? Who wouldn’t come to you and say ‘I have a problem.’ And does Hampshire have a way of identifying at risk students and following up with them?

JL: This is something in which student life takes the lead and you’re getting beyond where I feel like I can say ‘these are the six things we’re going to do.’ And I’ll tell Byron that we talked and that this is one of the issues. I guess what I’m comfortable saying is that it’s really important that we find ways to reach out to as many students as possible, acknowledging that we can never reach everybody, first. Second, we would very much like to work with the staff and faculty to equip people so that they feel like they know what to do when they see somebody, that they know what the signs of risk are and what to do, always acknowledging the tension that we talked about ten minutes ago between not wanting people to feel like they can never trust anyone on campus but at the same time wanting to be helpful. So it has to be able to go into a process where people are getting support and help. And be clear that it’s not about punishment. Um, of course we’re looking at how do we take completely overstressed support systems and strengthen them. Because the demands on those support systems for some reason this year on this campus and on many other campuses have just gone way up. I don’t know, nobody knows quite what’s going on and why the stresses seem higher but it’s true by the numbers on Hampshire, it’s true by the numbers on other campuses.

Amy: you say students are reaching out more for those services?

JL: yes.

Amy; Which ones specifically are you referring to?

JL: everything from disability services to counseling.

Amy: is that just, so Jordan Perry isn’t here anymore, is any of that stuff that’s been shuffled off that’s her job, or…

JL: no, the numbers are just flat up.

Amy: is there  a way we can get access to those or are those confidential?

JL: I don’t know. I’ll find out.

[[NOTE: There current numbers will not be finalized until the end of the semester.]]

Kenzo: Thank you.

Treat: One other thing.I think…… uh, I think kind of like collectively like as a body of students and I’m sure faculty and staff as well, we’ve kind of like struggled to mourn at times. There’s—I’m sure this isn’t directly under you but you know there was an announcement sometime ago that there would be a vigil through spiritual life for a student who died over the summer.

Amy: that never happened.

Treat: yeah like if they’re gonna happen. But I mean as a community I think that’s very difficult for us, and they died over the summer of course. You said you spoke to his father, and I drove to Maryland the same night to see my friend. Which I think very often at Hampshire is how these things affect us being the size community we are, there are maybe a few dozen that would be in a position to intervene with someone directly and are horribly affected when a student passes, but everyone—I would think everyone knows someone or knows someone that knows someone and collectively it is very difficult, especially when we don’t know what’s going on. It’s very difficult to have a conversation but also express anything collectively. Or to mourn. I don’t really know if I have a question.

JL: Id don’t know the answer to that. Liza Neal would know the answer to that. I can ask. I want to pick up on… I think it’s important to speak individually even if you don’t feel capable speaking collectively. so I mean both because that’s part of the process of feeling like you’re doing something and responding and because the community needs to hear that we share this concern. So I think that Hampshire is a place with a remarkably strong culture that binds us together. This is really a voluntary community, everyone is here because they made some choice about Hampshire. Staff faculty and students. And the more we can discover shared values around really hard events the stronger we are. I’m sorry does that sound preachy? I just think it’s really important to us.

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