An Open Letter to the MIT Community from President Charles M. Vest


To All Members of the MIT community -- Students, Faculty, and Staff:

Our freshman class is a group of remarkable young men and women for whom we share a common responsibility. They have been visited twice by tragedy during the course of this past week. Last Wednesday, September 24, one of their classmates, Umaer A. Basha, a resident of East Campus, collapsed and died unexpectedly while visiting his parents at home in Chicago. And as you all know, this past Monday saw the death of Scott Krueger, a freshman from Orchard Park, New York.

Becky and I can only imagine the depth of grief in their families and friends, and our hearts go out to them. The loss of these two young men has profoundly affected all of us here on campus, including the many faculty and staff who were just getting to know them.

Umaer's death reminds us that even in a young and vibrant group of students, unexpected tragedy can strike. Scott's death carries a further lesson -- that our behavior, culture, knowledge, and sense of both individual and collective responsibility can influence matters of life and death. It is essential that we all ponder this matter and, having done so, work explicitly and aggressively to create a culture and community in which such tragedies will not occur.

The specific facts and consequences of this incident are being sorted out and dealt with through appropriate legal and campus procedures. Our task now is to concentrate on improving MIT, and thereby all of our lives.

Alcohol, which was the primary factor in Mr. Krueger's death, is a major problem on virtually all U.S. campuses, and MIT is no exception. Abuse of alcohol comes in many forms and circumstances, as do other forms of risk-taking or dangerous behavior. Problems range from unthinking indulgence, as a manifestation of newly found freedom, to binge drinking to addiction. These problems can be exacerbated by the community through inattentiveness, lack of knowledge, unwillingness to intervene, or abdication of responsibility. Tragedy can and has occurred in many settings -- in independent living groups, in dormitories, in off-campus locations, and in the work place.

We have tried in many ways over the years to stem alcohol abuse, particularly binge drinking and underage drinking, but it is clear that we must redouble our efforts. We must do a much better job of educating our community about the risks and consequences involved in drinking and do all that we can to see that this kind of tragedy never happens here again.

To that end, I have been working with Professor Rosalind Williams, Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education; Professor Lotte Bailyn, Chair of the MIT Faculty; and others to organize focused discussions over the next month among students, faculty, and staff throughout the campus, in order to develop both a comprehensive assessment of the problem and recommendations for more effective ways of preventing alcohol abuse in our community. On or about the end of this month, we will report to the community on the results of these campus-wide discussions and recommendations.

The immediate goal of the activities over the next month is to develop recommendations for reinforcement or revision of policies and programs to make them more effective in preventing alcohol abuse on campus. Our ultimate goal is to improve the living and learning environment for all of our students. Everything is open for consideration, from better enforcement of current policies and procedures, to more effective education and counseling programs, to changing the freshman residential experience.

In the meantime, there are a number of steps that we are taking immediately:

1. Following the lead of the students in the Interfraternity Conference and the Dormitory Council, who have voluntarily suspended the serving of alcohol at all events pending a review of their policies, I am asking all student, faculty, and administrative groups to use the next month to explicitly review their use of alcohol in functions and meetings, both formal and informal. During the next month, as the Institute reviews our own policies, Professor Bailyn, as Chair of the Faculty, and I will not serve alcohol at any functions that we host, and we encourage all student, faculty, and administrative groups to consider such voluntary suspensions.

2. Effective immediately, we will prohibit the use of any Institute funds to purchase alcohol for events where students under 21 are present.

3. During the month of October, we will conduct a thorough review of the content and effectiveness of all Institute policies regarding the purchase, serving, and consumption of alcohol on campus, and of the relevant educational programs we have in place.

4. During the current academic year, I will establish and fund a seminar to study binge drinking among college students -- its social and psychological dimensions, and its physiological manifestations -- with the goal of producing effective educational programs and materials for use here and elsewhere. Many of our own students have told us that existing materials are inadequate and ineffective, and we will use this seminar as one way of drawing on their insights and creativity to produce educational programs that will work.

5. The Institute will begin immediately the planning, design, and construction of additional undergraduate housing on campus, with the goal of occupancy within three to four years. This will provide increased flexibility and options for improving the quality of the living experience for all of our students, especially during the freshman year.

At MIT, our students -- and indeed our entire community -- have considerable freedom to make choices and decisions. I believe that in general this serves us well in our living, learning, and working. However, with freedom comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes accountability -- both personal and collective. Although we cannot erase the tragedy of the death of a fine young person, we must support each other, and we must seek effective ways that, to the best of our abilities, will keep this from ever happening again.

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Sincerely yours,

Charles M. Vest


Topics: Administration, MIT presidency

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