Discovering David Dessler

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NOTE: The Flat Hat’s “Discovering David Dessler” series was published in four installments, each including two articles. Part one, “Something really weird and nearly incomprehensible has happened,” provides initial background and student perspectives. Part two, “Unconscionable incarceration for presumed mental illness,” provides the rest of the story background and additional student perspectives. Part three, “A standing that I’ve never heard of in the academic world,” discusses the College of William and Mary’s termination and leave policies. Part four, “A culture of silence,” discusses former government professor David Dessler’s case in relation to the culture surrounding mental health at the College.

PART ONE: BACKGROUND, “SOMETHING REALLY WEIRD AND NEARLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE HAS HAPPENED”

Who is David Dessler?

David Dessler is a former government professor at the College of William and Mary. During his 32 years of employment at the College, Dessler served as president of the Faculty Assembly and received numerous teaching honors.

In October 2015, Dessler was placed on administrative leave after sending his students a series of cryptic emails, and his GOVT204 (introduction to international politics) and GOVT433 (theories of the international system) courses were assigned to other professors. Between February 2016 and January 2017, Dessler was arrested by the William and Mary Police Department on four charges of harassment by computer and one failure to appear in court after allegedly sending emails containing “vulgar and obscene language” to College officials, including government department chair John McGlennon and university counsel Deborah Love. According to the Williamsburg-Yorktown Daily, one of the emails that led to Dessler’s Jan. 13, 2017 arrest included an anecdote about “the Government Department of some college.” In the story, an unidentified university counsel is “strung up and strangled by the neck and she is choking and grasping for breath.” Ultimately, Dessler spent a total of 77 days in jail, but four of the five charges were later dropped. The deposition for one harassment by computer charge has been deferred until May 2019.
this is a timelineGRAPHIC: MEILAN SOLLY / THE FLAT HAT

Aug. 9, 2016, Chief Human Resources Officer John Poma informed Dessler that his employment status was now listed as “inactive.” Dessler retained his tenure status. June 8, 2017, Dessler officially resigned from his position at the College, citing a desire to avoid “continued arrest and harassment by the College.” Throughout this roughly two-year period, Dessler sent sporadic emails to former students and colleagues, first via his official College account and later via a private account.

Dec. 27, 2017, Dessler filed a lawsuit against the College. In the complaint, he alleged that the College violated his First Amendment right to free speech, declined to grant due process protections associated with termination and failed to provide reasonable accommodation for a disclosed mental disability. Dessler further claimed that the College’s actions stemmed from his September 2015 announcement of a joint student-faculty mental health initiative.

Why was Dessler placed on administrative leave?

Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015, Dessler’s GOVT204 students received an email from his official College account (Dessler later claimed he did not write this email). In the email, Dessler informed students that he had been hospitalized but would return to campus in time for class.

“I am very sick, I should not leave the hospital, and that’s why twelve or so doctors were yelling at me to stay. … [I] promised them I would write you this because they are worried you will be upset or won’t like me or I’ll lose credibility or something like that,” Dessler said in the email.

Dessler arrived on campus but was prevented from entering the classroom by WMPD. Students were dismissed without speaking to him.

Friday, Oct. 23, Dessler emailed students regarding the email sent Oct. 21, writing, “The email you got from my mailbox at 12:22pm was not sent by me. The story it told was the exact opposite of what was happening in my life, and was told in a way to make you most upset about me.” At the end of the note, Dessler asked students to attend the day’s class, during which he would provide further clarification; however, McGlennon announced via email that class was canceled and promised to communicate information on how the class would move forward by Monday, Oct. 26.

Sunday, Oct. 25, Dessler sent students a 10-page “proposal” listing options for continuing the class and called for an in-person meeting the following day.

“We need to decide how to proceed. Or rather, as you will see when you open the attachment, you need to decide. This is your class. It is your call,” Dessler added in the body of the email.

McGlennon, after learning Dessler had requested to speak with students in person, notified the class that he would not prevent them from meeting with Dessler.

Monday, Oct. 26, both Dessler and McGlennon met with GOVT204 students. Later that evening, McGlennon informed students that Dessler was now on administrative leave and would be replaced by a new instructor.

“This was not an easy decision and I am aware that many of you wished for him to continue as your instructor,” McGlennon said. “ … Professor Dessler is a dedicated and caring teacher, and thedepartment of government and the College remain committed to him.”

By Friday, Oct. 30, Professor Kay Floyd assumed instruction of Dessler’s GOVT204 sections and professor Sue Petersen took over Dessler’s GOVT433 class.

PART TWO: BACKGROUND, “UNCONSCIONABLE INCARCERATION FOR PRESUMED MENTAL ILLNESS”

In the roughly two years since former government professor David Dessler was placed on medical leave, he has been arrested five times, spent 77 days in jail and officially resigned from his tenured position at the College of William and Mary.

This series of events, which began with Dessler’s 1984 hiring and culminated in a stream of cryptic emails sent to students, faculty and administrators (see part one), precipitated the unexpected end of a decorated professor’s teaching career and has raised questions regarding the College’s approach toward mental health issues. According to court documents, Dessler, who had previously been diagnosed with major depression, views his “continued arrest and harassment by the College” as retaliation for his proposed creation of a student-faculty mental health initiative in September 2015.

Oct. 26, 2015, students in Dessler’s sections of Introduction to International Politics and Theories of the International System received an email from department chair John McGlennon, who reported that Dessler had been placed on administrative leave and would be replaced by a new instructor.

Two days later, Dessler emailed students saying he had not been informed of this development. However, during a Nov. 2 phone conversation with Provost Michael Halleran, he agreed to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, citing grief and fatigue following the recent death of his sister and ongoing divorce settlement.

According to a Nov. 5 note from Dessler’s psychiatrist, his “grief, difficulty with focus and maintaining routine” were apparent from Oct. 6 and would likely persist until March 1, 2016.

Jan. 26 and 27, 2016, Dessler communicated with College officials regarding the end of his medical leave. In response, Chief Human Resources Officer John Poma informed Dessler that the College would not allow him to return to work until he submitted a physician recertification form. Once this form had been received, the College could also require Dessler to undergo an independent medical examination.

Feb. 28, Dessler was arrested by the William and Mary Police Department after allegedly sending threatening emails to McGlennon. The messages came from an anonymous account and included passages such as “Let the terror begin!” and “You’ll stop laughing soon, I guarantee it.”

Less than a month later, March 18, Dessler was arrested for a second time after sending an email to several College officials. According to court documents, this second arrest stemmed from Dessler’s alleged violation of the state’s cyber-stalking statute and resulted in strict limits being placed on his ability to communicate with College students, faculty and administrators. March 24, Poma contacted Dessler regarding his medical leave.

“We realize that these past few weeks and months have been difficult for you,” Poma wrote in the letter. “The university is taking the unusual step of extending your period of paid medical leave because of our sincere interest and hope that you have access to care to enable your return.”

Over the next three months, Dessler remained on leave. He was arrested twice more, first for missing a bond hearing (May 11) and next for responding to former students seeking career advice, thereby violating his ban on contact with individuals connected to the College (June 22).

At the end of July, Dessler contacted Poma to discuss the approaching end of his second leave. Citing Poma’s March 24 letter, he said he had sought medical care and intended to resume full-time teaching during the fall 2016 semester.

In response, Poma stated that Dessler would not be able to return from leave until the College received “documentation from a qualified medical provider that you are able to resume your duties and perform the essential functions of your job and/or that you do not pose a direct threat of harm to yourself or others.” If Dessler could not provide a Family and Medical Leave return-to-work certification, his period of paid leave would end Aug. 9.

Despite continued communication between Poma and Dessler, including a July 27 letter in which Dessler said he would “work to come up with yet another proposal to start a dialogue” and an Aug. 8 email in which Poma outlined Dessler’s options (do nothing, apply for long-term disability, retire, resign or seek to return to work), Dessler’s leave ended Aug. 9 without concrete plans for moving forward. He retained tenure, but his employee status was listed as “inactive.” Within two weeks, his pay, insurance benefits and College email access ended. In an Aug. 10 email to Poma, Dessler characterized the change in his employment status as “termination.”

“The university dismissed a tenured professor with an excellent 32-year record without anything close to adequate cause or due process,” he added. “…I would therefore respectfully request that the required corrective action be taken immediately.”

Sept. 8, three emeritus faculty members — former Provost P. Geoffrey Feiss, Chancellor Professor of English Emeritus Terry Meyers and Chancellor Professor of Sociology Kate Slevin — addressed the provost and Faculty Assembly in a letter arguing that Dessler had been terminated without a hearing, in direct violation of the Faculty Handbook and his due process rights.

“In all our years of service at the College, these actions constitute the most egregious evisceration of the Faculty Handbook that we have seen and indeed could imagine,” the emeritus faculty wrote.

In an interview with The Flat Hat, Feiss said he took action in hopes of preserving fundamental faculty rights.

“This was essentially throwing out the Faculty Handbook and the principles and procedures that had been worked on for a long period of time as a contract between the faculty and the administration,” he added.

In response, Halleran sent a memo to the Arts & Sciences Faculty Affairs Committee, the Faculty Assembly Executive Committee and the Faculty Assembly Faculty Affairs Committee. He copied individuals including College President William Taylor Reveley, University Counsel Deborah Love and the three emeritus faculty members who had sent the Sept. 8 letter.

Halleran denied the emeritus faculty members’ claims (citing Dessler’s retained tenure) and stated that Dessler was ineligible for a hearing.

“I was very disappointed to read the memo you and others received,” he wrote. “…The allegations made in this memo, if true, would indeed be alarming. None of them however, is true.”

Jan. 13, 2017, Dessler was arrested by WMPD for the fifth time after sending emails to McGlennon and various College officials, including Love.

One email described the university counsel of an unidentified college being “strung up and strangled by the neck and she is choking and grasping for breath.”

The email continued, “‘the Mentally Ill Winner who Put These Losers to Death’ will be watching the pain, knowing that both victims, whoever they are, are swinging back and forth, wishing they could do something, anything, but they are now dead, forever, and humiliated.”

Unlike the previous four charges, which were all dropped, the January 2017 charge went to trial in May. In a letter to Judge Charles Maxfield, who presided over the case, Feiss wrote that Dessler was “incapable of any physical harm to another human being. … This unconscionable incarceration for presumed mental illness [is] deeply troubling.” Ultimately,  Maxfield deferred making a decision on the case until May 2019.

June 18, Dessler officially resigned from his tenured position, writing that he felt this was the only way to avoid continued arrest and harassment by the College.

Sept. 28, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission closed an investigation into Dessler’s claim of discrimination by the College. In its “Dismissal and Notice of Rights Memo,” the EEOC said it had been unable to conclude that the information obtained violated given statutes.

The memo continued, however, to explain “this does not certify that the respondent is in compliance with the statutes. No finding is made as to any other issues that might be construed as having been raised by this charge.”

Dec. 27, Dessler filed a discrimination lawsuit against the College. According to the Sept. 28 EEOC memo, the commission’s dismissal of the case gave him the right to file this suit.

In the complaint, Dessler alleged that the College violated his First Amendment right to free speech, declined to grant due process protections associated with termination and failed to provide reasonable accommodation for a disclosed mental disability. Dessler further claimed that the College’s actions stemmed from his proposed creation of a joint student-faculty mental health initiative.

The day Dessler filed his claim marked 798 days since the Oct. 21, 2015, email that resulted in WMPD removing him from campus. The last time he had met with students in person, Oct. 26, 2015, was 793 days ago. Dessler had spent 77 of these 798 days in jail, including 45 on charges that were later dropped.

PART THREE: TERMINATION POLICIES, “A STANDING THAT I’VE NEVER HEARD OF IN THE ACADEMIC WORLD”

According to court documents, correspondence and interviews, a key point of contention between the College of William and Mary and former government professor David Dessler is the timeline surrounding his case: While the College states that Dessler remained a tenured faculty member until his June 18, 2017, resignation, he says the Aug. 9, 2016, listing of his employee status as “inactive” was tantamount to wrongful termination.

College spokesperson Suzanne Seurattan said employees on short-term medical leave have several options upon reaching the end of a leave period: apply for long-term disability, which may require documentation from a health professional; retire, if one has the service credit required; provide assurance of one’s readiness to return to work; or take no action.

Opting for the last path, Seurattan said, results in the employee’s status changing from active to inactive.

“An individual cannot be considered an active employee if he or she is not working or using accrued paid leave,” she wrote in an email. “The unusual circumstance of an employee not taking any of these actions would put an employee in inactive status.”

The College’s Faculty Handbook, which outlines faculty rights, responsibilities and procedural information, does not mention inactive employee status. Based on the definition provided by Seurattan, however, inactive employees remain on the College’s staff and are entitled to return to work, apply for disability or retire. They are not eligible for pay and benefits.

Within two weeks of Dessler’s listing as an inactive employee, his pay, insurance benefits and College email access were cut off. Still, according to the College’s stated parameters, he remained a tenured faculty member.

Sept. 8, 2016, former Provost P. Geoffrey Feiss, Chancellor Professor of English Emeritus Terry Meyers and Chancellor Professor of Sociology Kate Slevin submitted a letter of support for Dessler to the provost and Faculty Assembly. In it, they wrote that the College had “effectively fired a senior member of the Faculty in violation of the letter and spirit of the Faculty Handbook.” To rectify this alleged violation, the emeritus faculty recommended that Dessler be immediately reinstated to his salaried position and given the due process rights outlined in the handbook.

“Here was a case of a faculty member who, whatever the originating causes … was in effect fired,” Meyers said. “[He was] removed from his position with loss of salary and benefits and told nevertheless that he still had a tenured status, a standing that I’ve never heard of in the academic world.”

In response to the emeritus faculty note, Provost Michael Halleran denied all allegations.

Dessler] has not been terminated, but, without an indication of an ability to return to work and with the exhaustion of his paid medical leave, he was removed from the payroll as there is no other reasonable status for him as a tenured faculty member,” Halleran wrote in a Sept. 13, 2016, memo.

The distinction between an “inactive” status and termination is a complicated aspect of Dessler’s story, and it raises several additional questions: Why did Dessler — who, in a July 26, 2016, letter told Chief Human Resources Officer John Poma that he had sought medical care and intended to resume full-time teaching during the fall 2016 semester — decline to provide documentation that would facilitate his return to teaching? If Dessler had, as he and the emeritus faculty members say, been effectively terminated, what procedural guidelines were ignored?

According to page 25 of the Faculty Handbook, the termination of a tenured faculty member can only be effected for adequate cause, including incompetence, misconduct and medical reasons. Page 75 further states that administrative officers who find evidence that a faculty member is unable to perform his or her essential duties must discuss the problem with the employee and attempt to reach a satisfactory solution. If this fails, the provost submits a report to the Procedural Review Committee, which initiates an informal investigation. If the committee is also unable to reach a solution, the provost initiates a formal investigation overseen by the Faculty Hearing Committee.

“The burden of proof that the faculty member is no longer able to perform the essential duties of the position,” the handbook states, “even with reasonable accommodation, rests with the College and shall be satisfied only by clear and convincing evidence in the record considered as a whole.”

Because Dessler was classified as inactive, the College repeatedly told him he was ineligible for a hearing. Documents filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, however, show that following Dessler’s listing as inactive, the College “initiated proceedings under the Faculty Handbook to terminate [his] appointment as a tenured professor for medical reasons and misconduct.” Dessler subsequently resigned from his position June 18, 2017.

According to court documents, Dessler decided to resign to avoid continued harassment by the College.

After enduring five arrests and 77 days in jail, Dessler told The Flat Hat he was tired of living in constant fear.

“I thought I might be arrested again,” Dessler said. “I couldn’t figure out how to predict when I would get arrested, because I wasn’t breaking any laws, just [making] people mad.”

Overall, Dessler said he views the College’s Aug. 9, 2016, listing of his inactive employee status as “wordplay.”

“I lost all privileges of employment,” Dessler said. “The reason they could not just say, ‘you’re fired’ is I had tenure, so they were dancing around that. They had to say, ‘you are employed but you just aren’t active.’ … I realized that going back was hopeless.”

PART FOUR: THE COLLEGE’S MENTAL HEALTH CLIMATE, “A CULTURE OF SILENCE”

In April 2015, the College of William and Mary garnered national attention after experiencing four student deaths, including two confirmed suicides, in one academic year. The Washington Post described the death of Paul Soutter ’17 as a “tipping point” for a community that had witnessed eight student deaths since 2010. Alumna Cassie Smith-Christmas ’06, whose brother Ian Smith-Christmas ’11 committed suicide in April 2010, penned an open letter questioning the College’s approach to mental health.

On campus, the atmosphere was just as somber. Students organized mental health initiatives, including an April 29, 2015, walk held in honor of Soutter, Peter Godshall ’15 and Saipriya Rangavajhula ’17. College administrators hosted an open conversation on suicide prevention.

Former government professor David Dessler, then-president of the Faculty Assembly, said he observed these events with increasing frustration. During the summer of 2015, he consulted with local medical professionals regarding the College’s mental health climate, and by the start of the 2015-16 school year, he had drafted plans for a student-faculty mental health initiative.

Sept. 11, 2015, Dessler announced the initiative to students in his sections of Introduction to International Politics and Theories of the International System. He disclosed his personal struggles with mental illness, including a bout of depression that led him to take medical leave in spring 2007, but added that he was not ashamed of seeking treatment for these issues.

The classes’ responses, according to both Dessler and former students, were deeply impassioned.

“I [asked], ‘Why are you so emotional about this?” Dessler said, “and one student said, ‘You’re breaking down walls.’”

Later that day, several students sent Dessler messages of support.

“Depression is something that I have struggled with for a long time,” one wrote in an email. “…It is incredible to see that someone as accomplished as you has been in my shoes.”

Throughout the fall 2015 semester, Dessler continued promoting frank discussions of mental health. He made plans for the initiative’s first event — a panel featuring professors speaking about personal experiences with mental illness, as well as medical professionals offering advice on suicide prevention — and incorporated psychology principles into his courses.

Nick Flanagan ‘18, a student in Introduction to International Politics, explained that Dessler occasionally launched into seemingly off-topic stories but always connected his anecdotes back to mental health or related social science concepts.

“They would always end very poignantly,” Flanagan said. “I don’t know anyone [else] who can tell a story where I don’t know what’s going [on] and then I feel like I learned something.”

At the beginning of October, Dessler’s sister passed away. Over the following weeks, he canceled multiple class sessions, citing grief and the additional stress of his ongoing divorce settlement.

Oct. 21, Dessler sent students an email that would have lasting repercussions. In it, he wrote that he had been hospitalized but would return to campus in time for class.

“I am very sick, and I believe I do not look good, because everyone agrees on that,” Dessler said. “But we finally got the right diagnosis yesterday; things will be fine in the long term; and things are highly unpredictable and unpleasant in the short term. Don’t be alarmed.”

According to Dessler, the Oct. 21 email was a teaching exercise designed to mimic the perspective of an individual suffering from psychosis. He planned to use the message in his introduction of implicit assumptions’ role in starting World War I, but due to fatigue and grief, failed to disclose these intentions.

Dessler never made it to the day’s classes. Instead, the William and Mary Police Department barred him from entering the classroom. Professor John McGlennon, then-chair of the government department, dismissed students, who did not have a chance to speak with Dessler. Less than a week later, McGlennon informed students that Dessler was on administrative leave and would be replaced by a new instructor.

Students and parents offered mixed reactions to the unusual situation. Some expressed confusion and sadness over Dessler’s departure, while others voiced safety concerns sparked by their former professor’s cryptic emails.

“I am worried much less about my academics regarding this class than I am about the well-being of a professor I had quickly grown fond of,” one student wrote in an Oct. 25 email to McGlennon. “…I am disappointed in the lack of transparency we as students have been presented with and I feel that all of the drama surrounding this incident only serves to perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental health at this school.”

Oct. 27, a parent contacted McGlennon with “major concerns regarding the safety of his former students.”

“I’m sure that Professor Dessler was advised to discontinue all communications with his former students, yet he continues to write rambling letters,” the parent wrote in an email. “With that said, how does the school plan to guarantee the safety of their students and staff? … Unfortunately, far too many times people who express or show signs of mental illness and have the propensity to harm themselves are ignored until a tragic incident occurs.”

The Flat Hat has covered the ensuing series of events — from Dessler’s decision to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to his multiple arrests for alleged harassment by computer and a recently filed discrimination lawsuit against the College — but not within the context of the administration’s approach to mental illness.

A Nov. 5, 2015, FMLA certification form states that Dessler went on leave due to “grief, difficulty with focus and maintaining routine.” Dessler further explained that this period of leave, as well as the erratic emails he continually sent to colleagues and students, were related to a condition called acute psychiatric trauma.

In late 2015, Dessler experienced a steady flow of traumatic events. He said the distress caused by these events was comparable to that of a damaging yet treatable physical “blow,” as opposed to a persistent illness.

In July 2016, Dessler was also diagnosed with a disorder on the bipolar I spectrum — his doctor classified it as “eminently treatable,” and his current diagnosis is bipolar I in remission.

“I’ve had trauma and been successfully treated,” Dessler said. “I’m much better now. There were a couple of periods, October 2015 [and] just last June, when I was really struggling, and you can see it in the emails I wrote. [But] you can work through those traumas and they will not have a long-lasting effect.”

Between Feb. 28, 2016, and Jan. 13, 2017, Dessler spent a total of 77 days in jail, including 45 on charges that were later dropped. During these periods, he had no access to prescribed medications and few opportunities to seek medical care. Although his time in jail was jarring, Dessler said that living in constant fear of arrest ultimately had a stronger negative impact on his mental health.

Former Provost P. Geoffrey Feiss, one of three emeritus faculty members who wrote a Sept. 8, 2016, letter of support for Dessler to the Faculty Assembly and Provost Michael Halleran, said he had serious concerns about the administration’s handling of the situation.

“If someone is mentally ill, you don’t put them in jail,” Feiss said. “We haven’t done that since the 18th century. We don’t do that anymore, [and] the fact that this was a resolution of their sense that he was mentally ill was devastating.”

Chancellor Professor of English Emeritus Terry Meyers, one of the memo’s co-authors, said he decided to write the letter in response to a perceived violation of the Faculty Handbook and Dessler’s due process rights.

He also added, however, that the College’s “rapid deployment of campus police” following Dessler’s Oct. 21 email seemed like an abuse of power.

“In some sense, the College seems have criminalized what appears to be erratic behavior by someone afflicted with an illness,” Meyers said. “I would have thought compassion would be called for in this instance and I am mystified as to why David was treated as he was.”

An additional concern raised by both Feiss and Dessler was the latter’s extended isolation from the College community. In addition to being banned from campus, Dessler was prohibited from contacting students, McGlennon and College employees other than Chief Human Resources Officer John Poma.

“The only people he could communicate with were people … who were retired and therefore outside [of] the purview of the institution, and that is a terrible thing to do to someone who the institution believed to be suffering from mental illness,” Feiss said.

Dessler compared his isolation to that of Ian Smith-Christmas, the student whose April 2010 suicide spurred his sister to write an open letter questioning the College’s mental health policies.

According to the letter, Cassie Smith-Christmas advised her brother to visit the Counseling Center after learning he was having suicidal thoughts.

“Instead of offering any help, they call my mom to come down and then at 5 p.m. that day, [March 18], hold a meeting with a dean and five other staff where they promptly dismiss my brother from William and Mary and ban him from College grounds,” Cassie Smith-Christmas wrote.

Ian Smith-Christmas sought treatment at a local mental health facility and was released on outpatient status roughly two weeks later. Although doctors recommended he return to school that same week, the College denied his initial application for re-admittance. April 24, soon after he was finally allowed to return to campus, Smith-Christmas committed suicide.

“I do not hold William and Mary responsible,” his sister wrote, “[but] the way they treated him certainly contributed to how lost he must have been feeling to make such an awful decision.”

Dessler said he found the College’s decision to ban Smith-Christmas from campus reflective of a “tradition specific to William and Mary” — one in which individuals with serious mental health issues find themselves isolated from the community. He added that this treatment strategy contradicts the dominant advice offered by mental health professionals, who suggest sticking to one’s normal routine and staying connected with friends and community.

“I think one of the main problems with William and Mary is there is a culture that promotes silence,” Dessler said. “…Students know the system is broken and many of them don’t take advantage of the mental health resources for that reason.”

Following the publication of Smith-Christmas’ letter, Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06 responded to recurring concerns about the College’s approach to mental health, including those later cited by Dessler.

She wrote that almost 40 percent of students who visit the Counseling Center report suicidal thoughts, but the majority remain enrolled at the College. Those whose situations are best suited to taking time off from school are still considered students in good standing, and the College is “committed to supporting [them] in transitioning successfully back to our community.”

More than two years have passed since Dessler last stepped on campus, but he said he remains committed to the issue of student mental health, both at the College and on a wider scale. Just this month, he launched Syntiro, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching faculty how to support students with mental health issues. The overall goal, he explained, is to promote an environment in which individuals can discuss mental illness without fear of stigmatization.

“I have such a complex set of reactions [to what happened], a lot of sadness but also … hope for the future, and I would say that I’m also concerned because I’m no longer a professor,” Dessler said. “I can’t do anything about what’s happening in terms of student mental health at the College. It’s been a difficult experience but not without its rewards. I … leave concerned about students who have this fundamentally broken system. If that conversation could just get normalized on campus, everything would be great.”

(The Flat Hat, Feb. 6-26, 2018)

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