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MIT residence leaders get facts on alcohol effects, legal liability

Administration, Campus Police and legal staff answered a plethora of questions relating to alcohol use at MIT posed by student residence supervisors at a Monday evening gathering in Burton Conner's Porter Dining Room.

"Alcohol is an important part of all our lives, of the world we live in, and whether you drink or not, it's vital to know about it," said Dr. William Kettyle, associate director of MIT Medical, addressing 60 residence team members, housemasters, graduate resident tutors (GRTs), house managers, graduate coordinators and sorority house directors.

The evening's presentations began with a skit by UpFront, the MedLINKS drama troupe, entitled "Alcohol Poisoning -- Past, Present and Future," which prompted discussion of the changing attitudes toward alcohol on campus, based on an increasing awareness of the dangers. Tracy Desovich, health educator at MIT Medical, guided exchanges exploring the range of student attitudes, myths, misconceptions and efforts to be responsible.

Dr. Kettyle conveyed a wealth of medical and physiological information with humor. For example, many people at the session did not know that alcohol suppresses the enzyme which controls urination. Together with ingestion of a large volume of liquid when drinking beer, "that results in a major commitment to the commode," he said. "Overurination, causing depletion of body fluids, is the source of the hangover the next day."

Dr. Kettyle also noted that the very strong, unpalatable odor of alcohol at room temperature is a natural defense against overconsumption and is the reason alcohol is often imbibed cold. Circumventing this defense by drinking through a funnel or an ice slide is dangerous.

Gradual and repeated exposure to alcohol over time increases the liver's ability to metabolize it, he added. That's why alcoholics can consume so much before getting drunk and why the novice is in particular danger of getting alcohol poisoning from an amount that seems small to experienced drinkers.

Participants also pressed Campus Police Chief Anne Glavin with many questions about what would happen if they called for an ambulance when the person drinking was underage. She assured them that obtaining prompt medical care for the student was top priority.

She added, however, that the Campus Police are sworn law enforcement officers and, depending on the circumstances, they will investigate, possibly leading to action by the Dean's Office. Chief Glavin made it clear that underage students who drink and those over 21 who provide them with alcohol are taking a risk of disciplinary action. That should never prevent calling for help when needed, though, because the consequences of not getting medical care could be tragic.

Thomas Henneberry, director of Insurance and Legal Affairs, echoed the advice to call for help when needed. He said GRTs and others should not worry about legal liability if they are doing their jobs responsibly. All that is expected of them is to use their common sense.

"You are not cops, and have no obligation to investigate for possible violations of law," he said.

Any residence team member who tries to look out for students, even if harm occurs, will be doing his or her job, and if a claim is made against that person, MIT will provide the defense. The only exception would be if the person committed a crime, such as providing alcohol to someone under 21, in which case MIT would not defend the claim, Mr. Henneberry said.

Margaret Bates, dean of student life, said MIT's expectation is that GRTs will develop strong relationships with their students, making meaningful education about alcohol and prevention of problems possible.

"What encourages me is that the public spotlight on alcohol use at MIT gives us the opportunity to address fundamental questions of what we want our community to look like," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 14, 1998.

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