The tragic death of Scott Krueger from alcohol poisoning last September brought anguish to his friends here and shocked the entire MIT community. Scott is the only person, to our knowledge, who has died from alcohol poisoning at MIT. In fact, studies show that dangerous drinking at MIT is approximately half the rate at other universities throughout the country. But as many people have said, if it can happen at MIT, it can happen anywhere.
MIT is a community that cares about its students. Our efforts to educate them about the law and the hazards of dangerous drinking have intensified over this past year, and both students and administrators have worked on many fronts to combat this phenomenon. No college, however, can guarantee that what is taught will be learned.
The Newsweek article demonstrates the complexity of the troubling national trend of dangerous drinking, and the human tragedy that can result. MIT doesn't have the solutions, but we know that they will not be simple. Educators and public leaders struggle with the question of how best to address these problems.
Last fall, among many actions MIT has taken, it appointed a working group on dangerous drinking, which issued its report three weeks ago. The report underscored the societal nature of the problem, and stressed the importance of education as the way to deal with it. The Dean's office and others continue to work to strengthen long-existing programs and to develop new approaches to deal with these issues.
The Newsweek article refers to MIT's practice of allowing freshmen to join fraternities. As Dean of Students Rosalind Williams notes, that option has long been viewed as one that provides a supportive group of friends within the larger MIT community. "We simply do not push students into fraternities," she said. "All freshmen are guaranteed dormitory housing if they wish, both at the start of the freshman year and anytime later in the year, if they change their minds about living in a fraternity."
The Newsweek article raised the question of a possible criminal indictment of the university or its officers. There is no legal precedent for such action. Indeed, for over two decades, when people have sued universities in private civil cases for damages caused by alcohol-related incidents, the courts have consistently held that college students are to be treated as adults, and that universities cannot be held responsible for the individual actions of their students.
Bringing criminal charges would be the worst message to send to universities at a time when they are trying to deal with the complex matters of student drinking. An indictment would have a chilling effect on the efforts of universities to deal with dangerous drinking. It inevitably would encourage universities to divorce themselves from any supervision of fraternities, so that they can minimize their legal responsibility for incidents that occur off campus.
These issues concerning the appropriate role of universities are far too complicated to be answered by a simple choice between a guilty or not guilty verdict in a criminal case. They can only be answered by thoughtful educators, public leaders, and young people working together.