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Too Quiet

Kevin R. Lang

I was away from MIT last year, studying at Cambridge University in England. To be fair, I was studying, rowing, partying, and traveling, but nonetheless I was very far removed from MIT. I enjoyed the relative lack of problem sets, tests, and papers, but I didn’t want to give up everything about my MIT experience, so I tried writing for one of the newspapers over there, The Cambridge Student. TCS is the more respectable of Cambridge’s two student papers, evidenced by the fact that the other, Varsity, regularly uses the word “fuck” in four-inch-tall headlines. I wrote a few stories, but I just couldn’t stay interested in Cambridge news; quite frankly, Cambridge is boring compared to MIT. And frankly, that’s not such a bad thing.

From the moment I got to MIT, there were sensational stories coming from all over campus. It seemed like every week some 17-year-old girl from Simmons or Wellesley was getting drunk at a frat party. The Boston Globe jumped on each incident as further evidence of MIT’s hard-core drinking culture. We lost fraternities, sometimes for a week, sometimes forever. Even though this was happening to our fellow students, it was fascinating stuff. Everyone knows that underaged college students get drunk. Getting caught made it interesting.

Often, though, the news was simply horrible. Far, far too many students have taken their own lives in the three years since I first arrived at MIT, including a friend who lived two floors down from me. Every time we lost another friend, another classmate, another lab partner, another teammate, another guy down the hall who’s never around, it got our attention. But every time we heard about another suicide, we were less and less surprised, even as MIT’s administrators grew more and more concerned.

Back to Cambridge. Students drink often and drink hard, but there really isn’t any such thing as “underage” or “illegal” drinking at a university in a country where 18 is the legal limit, and anyone over 14 can and will be served in a pub. Cambridge has the occasional suicide, but unlike MIT they have one of the lowest rates of any university in the country.

During my time away, it seemed to be business as usual in the on-campus disaster department. The Cambridge License Commission was busier than ever wagging its finger at MIT’s fraternities, and more students committed suicide. My question is this: when, exactly, did everything change?

This has been the single quietest semester I have ever seen at MIT, either from my MacGregor window or from abroad. No alcohol incidents. No suicides. What happened that suddenly fixed MIT’s problems with binge drinking and mental health? I know the Institute has taken steps to address these issues, and I would really like to believe that MIT is a happier, friendlier, safer place than when I left. I worry, though, that MIT will see alcohol and mental health as “solved problems” if all remains quiet for much longer. It’s easy for MIT to react -- the administration is great at that. Form a committee, write a report, hire a new dean. What’s going to be difficult is for MIT to remain vigilant, to keep making progress on mental health, to keep pushing students toward safer drinking and, more importantly, taking care of each other when we drink too much. Cambridge students get their “alcohol education” at an early age, and they know how to take care of a friend when he or she has had too much.

Unfortunately, I think it’s only a matter of time before this place gets interesting again. There is more alcohol in the dorms now than I have ever seen before; I can’t say how it compares to the pre-Krueger era, but I’ve seen some very well-stocked parties in a certain dorm that’s often regarded as quiet and anti-social. I know it sounds horrible, but if enough students are exposed to enough alcohol, sooner or later someone is going to have too much, someone isn’t going to take care of a friend who needs help, and someone is going to wonder why MIT didn’t change anything since 1997. Students are just as overworked, overtired, stressed-out, and depressed as ever. And depression here is bad enough in a good economy; how many seniors are struggling to find a job this year after watching their friends graduate into the biggest economic boom in history?

Let’s face it -- the things that make MIT depressing are not going away. The pressure, the mountains of problem sets, the loneliness of the all-night tool -- these are here to stay. And college students are not going to stop drinking, no matter how many alcohol education meetings they attend, no matter how many frat houses are shut down.

MIT has really focused recently on awareness; here’s hoping that MIT stays aware of potential problems even when they aren’t staring back from the pages of The Boston Globe.