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Our Haunted Campus

Eric Plosky

The specter of death looms over campus as never before.

There have always been student deaths at MIT -- it has historically been accepted that accidental deaths, and suicides, were inevitably part and parcel of life at the Institute. Every now and then, someone would die, and each incident was individually mourned as a tragedy, but the overall phenomenon was never really addressed.

That approach -- that lack of an approach -- does nothing to help prevent deaths. Since my arrival at MIT in August 1995, 22 students have died, by means both accidental and deliberate. This academic year alone has seen five deaths among the student community, and the term’s not over yet.

Student death is a problem at MIT. Only those who are not at all affected by a bright young man or woman meeting a horrible fate could claim otherwise.

Sadly, most on campus feel it is not in their interest to discuss the problem -- and even more sadly, it’s easy to see where each group is coming from. Administrators don’t want to be associated with student death; after all, it’s not necessarily MIT’s fault that students die, so why should the administration run the risk of seeming to take responsibility? Students themselves don’t want to talk about death -- they (understandably) don’t want to drag their late friends through the mud, and neither do they wish to confront the cold reality that their lives are just as fragile.

Attempts to start a campus-wide dialogue on the subject have historically been met with failure. Even an impassioned plea from the father of Douglas Rodger ’93, who committed suicide at home in 1991, failed to spark talk. Only the now-infamous 1997 drinking death of Scott Krueger ’01 produced a campus response, and then only as a direct reaction to sudden, intense media attention.

Never has a courageous leader, in time of calm and quiet, stepped forward to acknowledge the overarching situation, to begin a discussion that might be able in some small way to help the long-term problem. On the contrary -- MIT people have instead actively tried to ignore deaths, particularly suicides; that’s the reason Ken Campbell last week explained to the Boston Globe the administration’s position on suicides: “There’s a lot of evidence that the more you report it, the more they do it.”

Current closed-mouthedness on the topic complements nicely the antagonism that seethes on campus between the class and the brass. Administrators grapple with problems resulting from hasty post-Krueger policymaking; students make preparations to fight what many call a culture war. Never in recent memory have relations within the community been so hostile, and hostility has grown even as tragedy continues to visit and revisit campus.

On Saturday, November 22, 1997, President Charles M. Vest and Dean Rosalind Williams sponsored the Infinite Buffet, a morale-building event designed to help MIT recover from a tragic September and October during which three undergraduates died. This Spring Weekend marks the return of the Johnson Games, another community-building event that may again help MIT recover from what has been another traumatic year.

We need more such community-building opportunities. But we also need to talk with each other, to be courageous enough to address student death squarely and without fear. Many scoff at that idea; they say that talk accomplishes nothing, that death is beyond a community’s control. That may be true. But it’s worth a try.