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Talking Content-Free With Parents

Guest Column Thomas H. Tate

Over the Labor Day weekend, I had the very enjoyable task of helping my freshman daughter move into a dorm room. My emotions were a combination of pride, apprehension, and anticipation. The experience brought back pleasant memories of the day 30 years ago in September 1967 when I entered MIT as a freshman. I had not been on campus since moving to California after graduation, and it was interesting to see the changes. Although the area near Kendall Square was completely unrecognizable, the main part of the Institute looked remarkably similar to the way it looked in 1967.

Of course, the real difference is in the student body. Women are now a significant part of the class, and, more importantly, there seemed to be a warmth and supportiveness than didn't exist when I went to school. The people we met in my daughter's dorm were friendly and personable. The place seemed a little run-down but less sterile and more human than I remembered. I liked it.

On Saturday, my wife and I wandered into a talk on fraternity life for the parents of students who pledged. The parents were concerned about alcoholic beverages and asked questions, but the answers were platitudes and content-free. The tone of the talk was don't worry; everything is fine. I don't like meetings with a low signal to noise ratio, and since it didn't apply to us, we left.

The parents at that meeting had an expectation that their sons would be safe; that expectation has been betrayed. The tragic death of Scott S. Krueger '01 shows that not only were their concerns justified but MIT has not been paying attention to problems. From the information I've been able to gather, Krueger was a non-drinker but was required to drink at least something as part of a fraternity activity.

The 16 drinks in his body were equivalent to a full bottle (a fifth) of whiskey - that's a lot, especially for a non-drinker. If Krueger did this voluntarily, it's hard to believe that someone didn't say "Hey, you have to be careful with that stuff. Cool it." So much for my impression that MIT is more supportive.

I was disturbed by some of the statements made after Krueger's death. Interfraternity Council President Iddo Gilon '98 said, "This is the first accident of its nature. In outcome, it is an isolated incident." This is like saying that if a 20,000-ton asteroid hit New York City, it wouldn't be important because it is an isolated incident. Death by alcohol overdose is extremely important because it is very rare and completely preventable.

Ashesh P. Shah '98, the president of the Dormitory Council said, "Hopefully we can resolve this [issue] and come up with new policies." I don't think we need new policies. We just need to make the old ones work. Go read the MIT alcohol policy before deciding that more paper is going to do anything useful. Persons over 18 years old are capable of making prudent decisions about alcoholic beverages provided they are not coerced.

Another person said that Krueger's death "could have happened at several fraternities; it could have happened in a dorm." Well, it didn't happen in a dorm; it happened in a fraternity just like the death of a pledge in Louisiana who was required to drink alcohol. If this really could happen at several other fraternities, immediate action must be take to save the lives of young men.

As a parent, I try to protect my children. I understand the dangers that students face and try to mitigate the risks, and although I don't like it, I can deal with the aftermath of things gone wrong. However, as much as I try, I just can't understand what happened to Krueger. His death is completely outside the range of risks that I would have considered, and all I come up with is a tremendous feeling of confusion and loss.

There is something very wrong with the event at Phi Gamma Delta and the system that allowed this tragedy to happen. More paper isn't going to solve this problem. Only a system that nurtures that supportive spirit and punishes destructive behavior will have a real chance of success.

Thomas H. Tate '71 lives in San Jose, California.