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Vest starts campus discussion on alcohol use and MIT culture

On Monday morning, President Charles M. Vest started a comprehensive review and major campus discussion of MIT's policies and culture regarding the use of alcohol, following a tragic event at one of the Institute's fraternities over the weekend.

Scott Krueger, an 18-year-old freshman pledge, went into a coma Friday night after an evening of drinking at Phi Gamma Delta, his fraternity house, and died at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Monday evening.

On Monday morning, President Vest convened a meeting that involved Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education Rosalind Williams, several members of the Dean's Office, and other members of the MIT community including the Medical Department, faculty, Campus Police, president's staff and others to coordinate Institute-wide discussions of campus culture and alcohol abuse, with a particular focus on underage and binge drinking. These discussions will be part of a comprehensive review of MIT policies and activities with regard to the use of alcohol on campus.

"We must redouble our efforts to educate 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 again," Dr. Vest said.

The presidents of the Interfraternity Council, representing 39 fraternities, sororities and independent living groups (FSILGs), Sunday night voluntarily canceled all events in which alcohol is involved while they review their policies.

"We have a wake-up call here of major proportions," said Senior Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph. "How we respond to it is going to be very important. We know at MIT that we are smart; the question is whether we can be wise as well." He said he expected the dialogue over policies would go on throughout October.

"The best prevention of alcohol abuse is peer education," he said. "Our goal is to move someone to say to a fellow student, 'You're behaving foolishly' when they drink too much.

"The reality is that we have far more students than ever before saying today that they do not want to drink. We have two national fraternities who have pledged publicly that they will be substance-free (no alcohol or drugs) by the year 2000. That would have been unthinkable a decade ago. At the same time, we have students who drink too much."

Regarding investigation of the situation at Phi Gamma Delta, he said, "The police have an investigation to carry out. We defer to their investigation, and once they are done, we will go on from there."

Dean Williams said the faculty and administrators assembled by Dr. Vest agreed on the need for a period devoted to an Institute-wide discussion of alcohol abuse. "The outcome of this discussion will be policy and cultural changes representing our strongest possible effort to ensure that alcohol abuse does not take place on this campus."

Throughout the weekend, members of the dean's office and counselors from the Medical Department were meeting with students in the fraternity and leaders of the other FSILGs. Tuesday night, Neal Dorow, assistant dean of residence and campus activities, held a meeting of alumni leaders associated with MIT fraternities to discuss ways in which they could offer support and guidance to the fraternities at this time. MIT chaplains also met with students and others involved.


"To be meaningful and productive, our discussions must engage faculty, students and staff," Professor Williams said. She and Professor Lotte Bailyn, chair of the faculty, sent a letter to department heads, asking them to tell them of concerned faculty who would be willing to initiate discussions among faculty and between faculty and students. Professors Bailyn and Williams will hold a meeting with these faculty on Friday at 2pm in the Marlar Lounge (Rm 37-252). All concerned faculty are encouraged to attend.

Dean Williams also wrote an e-mail letter to the 125 freshman advisors, suggesting they might get a discussion started by asking freshman a series of questions like these:
1. What have you observed in the way of alcohol-related behavior and attitudes at MIT?
2. What do you know about the MIT's alcohol-related policies, rules, sanctions, etc.?
3. Are there elements of MIT's culture that lead to alcohol abuse? If so, what are they?
4. What would you change about MIT's policies and cultures in order to make alcohol abuse less of a problem?
5. What educational resources, information, advice or other assistance could you use at this time?
6. How would you define responsible drinking?

She said in the letter, "We are hoping that these same questions, or a similar list, can serve as a springboard to discussion in other groups of students, faculty and staff. We want to organize these discussions so that they will lead to recommendations for changes in MIT's policies, educational programs and cultural patterns that will reduce alcohol abuse on campus."

The letter to freshman advisors included a list of counselors from the Dean's Office and the Medical Department who could help the freshman advisors to frame and lead such a discussion. Advisors were also asked to write a memo summarizing the results of the group discussions, where appropriate, and send it to Donna Friedman, staff associate in the Dean's Office, who will see that these observations are integrated into the process of developing recommendations for future actions and policies.

"This is a heartbreaking situation," Dean Williams said. "No matter how well we respond, our efforts cannot begin to address the magnitude of this tragedy. We can only do our best to support each other and to begin a process that, to the very best of our abilities, will keep this from ever happening again at MIT."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 1, 1997.

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