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Our Collective Alcohol Failure

Guest Column
Bryan Adams

The timing of Fiji’s settlement with the family of Scott Krueger is ironic. It should be a chance for everyone in the MIT community to reflect on how we behave more responsibly with alcohol. We should be looking at how we reformed an out-of-control system to create a new culture around drinking. We should say to ourselves, with confidence, that we have done everything possible to eliminate the chance of losing another student to dangerous alcohol use.

We cannot say any of these things. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that our changes have been largely ineffective. And we’ll admit that the circumstances are ripe for another alcohol-related injury or death. This is not to say that no one has done anything. MIT sums up its contributions on a page entitled “What MIT Has Done to Curb Alcohol Use,” and I don’t question the veracity of this self-reporting. The IFC has a similar litany of improvement: a better risk management policy, increased sanctions, and a rededication to enforcement. Again, I don’t deny the accuracy of their claims.

I will say that the sum of these actions has not come close to making a dent in the dangerous behavior that takes place every weekend. And the proof is all around us. I won’t make the case by pointing to the recent turmoil in the IFC, or by citing conversations I’ve had with MIT administration officials about alcohol, although both provide important pointers to the depth of the problem. I will simply report what I’ve seen with my own eyes. Drinking remains out of control in many of MIT’s FSILGs.

I lived in a fraternity all four undergraduate years, and I’m in my third year as a resident advisor at a different house. I was a junior when Scott Krueger died, and I saw what drinking was like in fraternities both immediately before and immediately after his death. I have seen parties at a number of FSILGs this year, and I’ve heard (from students and Resident Advisors at FSILGs) about many more. And I can tell you that we have not learned our lesson about alcohol use from the death of one of our own.

One Resident Advisor confidentially told me that his house had served alcohol to two female guests at a party only to find out later that both were from a local high school. A widely distributed e-mail promoted “IM BEIRUT,” an IM drinking game league. I’ve seen a liquor luge (a large ice block used for drinking alcohol shots) used in the back room of an open party. These are only the most dangerous occurrences I’ve seen; more mundane violations of policy such as underage drinking, mass alcohol purchases, and communal alcohol funds are so commonplace as to be unremarkable.

I’m amazed that no one has applied the simplest test to our body of alleged reforms: “Would this new effort have prevented Scott Krueger’s death?” I have not yet seen a single reform for which I would answer affirmatively. Resident Advisors? Almost always closed out of ritual (and semi-ritual) events. Party registration? Most houses don’t bother to register brothers-only events. Freshmen on campus? Nothing stops freshmen from being at the houses for events, and even MIT doesn’t object to their staying overnight from time to time. The truth is that an exact replica of a Scott Krueger event could happen and no new safeguard would stop it.

What steps can be taken to make real changes? A few modest suggestions:

Clearly define some measurable goals with regard to alcohol use and strive to achieve them. Since day one, the issue of alcohol use on campus has been lost in a nebulous haze of anecdote and rhetoric (I sheepishly include myself in this indictment). Find a way to seriously measure alcohol use, and then look to improve the measurements. We cannot claim success until we know what success would look like.

Simplify the rules so that everyone knows exactly what they are. FSILGs are awash in a sea of arcane and disperse rules. Insurance carriers. The IFC. National chapters. MIT. State and federal law. They need to be summarized concisely and made perfectly clear to everyone who lives in an FSILG. Ignorance cannot be an excuse.

Put pressure on the group that bears perhaps the most responsibility: the alumni corporations. How the alumni have received so little scrutiny for their absentee role in preventing alcohol abuse at FSILGs is a mystery. These groups have a huge investment in the system and serious clout with the undergraduates. They should be active participants in finding a solution and they have not been. I point to myself here: I am a house corporation president, and I’ve seen how reluctant we are to get involved. The entire community needs to ask for (and receive) the cooperation of the Association of Independent Living Groups (AILG) in working on this problem.

Get serious about enforcement. Having fellow undergraduates stop by registered FSILG parties during designated hours to look for violations is not nearly enough. A serious enforcement body should randomly check the houses as often as is reasonably possible. This will require cooperation between MIT, the alumni, the IFC, and the houses themselves. It will also require a significant investment of resources. Both are utterly necessary.

As an alumnus of the MIT FSILG system, I can honestly say that I learned and benefited from it a great deal. I am also aware that another injury or death at an FSILG will probably spell the end of the entire system. “Choice in housing” has been a battle cry for many at the Institute: without effectively addressing the problems around alcohol use, all FSILG choices will be wiped out and another student lost. We cannot let that happen.

Bryan Adams is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.