For so many colleges and universities, March Madness is a time of excitement where conference tournaments can lead to dancing and high hopes can lead to a date with cinderella. For the Cornell Big Red, it was an oppportunity to think about something else besides the six suicides on the school’s campus this school year.
The Ivy League’s champion and the NCAA tournament’s cinderella saw their historic run come to an end on Thursday night in a 62-45 loss to Kentucky, after having advanced to the sweet sixteen for the first time in the school’s history. They won their first two games of the tournament over Temple and Wisconsin, the first two tourney victories for the prestigious university. But perhaps the biggest victory for this proud team was their ability to take the student body’s mind off of the sad reality that the term “suicide school” has resurfaced, returning from the dark part of the university’s legacy.
Six students have taken their own lives at the Ithaca, New York campus in the last six months. The rash of suicides came to a head in mid-March when police recovered the body of engineering major William Sinclair, a sophomore who plunged off of a bridge that goes over one of the many gorges near campus. The very next day, Matthew Zika jumped from a different bridge near campus. Zika was a junior who was also studying engineering.
In February, another student jumped from a bridge. In the fall semester, three other Cornell scholars did the same. Combining that with five other members of the Big Red family who lost their lives due to illness or accident, and the Ithaca campus has been sent reeling, leading to officials stationing police officers at all bridges around campus and extending counseling hours for those students who need the support.
Beyond that, campus personnel has taken upon themselves to knock on every door of students living in Cornell residence halls and instructing the faculty at the school to “put the academic rigor that [they] know is part of Cornell in proper perspective,” according to Susan Murphy, vice president of student and academic services.
The rash of suicides are the first on Cornell’s campus since 2005, but the school has a dark history that led to its being tagged as a “suicide school.” Between 2002 and the spring of 2009, there were five suicides at Cornell. In the six years prior, there were 11 students who took their lives.
The university has taken their reputation as a rigorous school and learned from what those drastic consequences can be. Their student services and mental health programs are models for colleges across the country. The administration changed their interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to enable them to contact parents and family without a student’s consent when a pupil’s grades slip or indicators of mental health problems arise. Students quickly learn to ask for help and are encouraged to constantly take a mental inventory as they head into difficult academic periods.
For the Big Red basketball team, those rigors are compounded by playing a sport and competing within the Ivy League’s weekend-dominated schedule. The league competes only on Fridays and Saturdays, allowing for student-athletes to focus on schoolwork during the week. This makes for weekend-long road trips that saw the Big Red play at Penn and Princeton in successive days in February and at Brown and Yale on a Friday and Saturday in March.
But the team became a rallying point for the Cornell campus this season. After defeating schools like Massachusetts, Alabama, St. Joseph’s and St. John’s, the Big Red traveled to Lawrence, Kansas and gave the Jayhawks everything they could handle before falling, 71-66. The strength of that performance eventually led to the team being ranked in the top 25 for a brief stretch.
The calendar turned, the out-of-conference season transitioned into the Ivy League schedule and the spring semester began in Ithaca. Then the suicides came, culminating in the March deaths of Sinclair and Zika in consecutive days.
On Selection Sunday, the Big Red drew Temple in the first round, a team from a conference they knew well, led by a coach that Cornell’s Steve Donahue knew very well. Many (including me) picked Fran Dunphy’s Temple Owls to take out his former assistant and the Big Red, but Cornell fans knew better. This team was good, not just Ivy League good, but NCAA tourney good. It wasn’t even close: Cornell 78, Temple 65.
In the second round, the team would face another slow-down team, this one from the Big Ten in Wisconsin. The pundits talked about how this was another team Cornell could handle, and they did: Cornell 87, Wisconsin 69. This meant a Sweet Sixteen trip to Syracuse, New York of all places. The Carrier Dome sits just 55 miles from the Ithaca campus. The opponent: Kentucky. Could it be? Could the Big Red take down Calipari’s freshmen sensations?
Cornell took an early 10-2 lead, getting the red-wearing crowd at the dome excited. Then the Wildcats finished the half on a 30-6 run to take control at halftime, 32-16. The Big Red had their moments in the second half, cutting the lead to six with 5:42 left after a Louis Dale three-pointer, but Kentucky pulled a way in the end, winning by 17.
The run was over. But the impact this team had on the university is immeasurable. They went 2-1 against three top 25 teams that all the experts deemed to be superior. They took the focus of the school off of homework, exams and suicide and let them dive into three amazing college basketball games in a seven-day span. They were the darlings of the sports world for a week and received media attention for something that wasn’t the half-dozen tragedies from this school year.
No matter what the score against Kentucky was, this tournament was a win for Cornell’s Big Red. We can only hope that the future of the Ithaca school holds more celebrations than funerals.