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A Tragedy With A Difference

Guest Column Ron Loui

On May 5, 1995, a beautiful student at the University of Washington in St. Louis named Melissa Gail Aptman was killed. She was forced into a van after a party at a popular restaurant near campus, shot, raped, driven into the ghetto, and left to die. The campus wept. The parents came to town not for her graduation, as they had planned, but to dedicate monuments and help with our healing. Our chancellor stood beside those parents with dignity and with sadness.

Our chancellor, William Danforth, retired the next year with the community's highest respect. He was replaced after a long search by former-MIT provost Mark S. Wrighton.

Why is MIT's recent tragedy, the death of a fraternity freshman, so different from ours?

MIT President Charles M. Vest should make a public apology and offer to be removed from his position this year. MIT didn't care enough about its undergraduates to create a healthy environment. MIT has blood on its hands. Vest should acknowledge the responsibility and start MIT on the path to a higher tradition.

Too many academic administrators have been thinking that their jobs are about fundraising, investment, keeping alumni happy, and keeping scandals quiet. Leading a university is not an easy job. The job has business components, but it is also about rising to the responsibilities of leadership. This is especially true at MIT, which leads the world in so many ways.

I know about social life at MIT. I know that the fraternities believe themselves to be the only viable social option. I know that some of them inherit Boston's underage drinking excesses, and add to this their own ritual bravado. I know that some MIT fraternities manage to find the lowest common denominator in search of some fiction of fun.

If I know all of this, so does Vest. Apparently, it was even documented before him five years ago. MIT may be sued, probably deserves to be, will survive if it loses, and may even be better for it. MIT probably should not be trying to exculpate itself because it could have happened in the dormitories or because "alcohol awareness" will make everything better.

Our chancellor didn't permit St. Louis criminals to parade unchecked among a vulnerable student population. Even if there were a threat to the well-being of our students, it would exist only if our best efforts to eliminate it had failed. It would not have the nod from the top, the implicit acceptance, in fact, the mark of institutional recognition and accreditation.

Vest and his people know what happens among eighteen year-olds at fraternities, and they let it happen. They could have taken a higher road. That is why they cannot now stand beside weeping parents with dignity.

Children will drink at college, and sometimes, college students will even die.

Melissa Aptman was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone understood that. The death of Scott S. Krueger '01, on the other hand, was the logical conclusion at an institution that has allowed itself to go wrong. Someone at MIT has to admit the difference.

Ron Loui is a professor of computer science at the University of Washington in St. Louis.