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COLUMN

Individuals Responsible for Actions

Guest Column
Jason Onysko

For some reason, the basic tenet that individuals should be held responsible for their own actions has become lost in the campus debates with respect to underage drinking, and MIT’s alcohol policy. Bryan Adams [“Our Collective Alcohol Failure,” Nov. 22] completely misses the mark when he places the onus of policing and preventing alcohol consumption by MIT students and their guests squarely on MIT, the Interfraternity Council, the Association of Independent Living Groups, alumni corporations, campus authorities, and the fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups themselves -- seemingly everyone and every organization but individuals. This approach poorly frames the problem, causes people to ask the wrong questions, and results in unnecessary and ineffective actions being taken.

From fall 1993 to spring 1997 I lived on campus at Alpha Tau Omega. Since I left the Institute, I have remained involved with my fraternity through our alumni house corporation. While I have limited first-hand experience with respect to the alcohol problem at MIT after the death of Phi Gamma Delta pledge Scott S. Krueger ’01, I did witness what it was like beforehand. There can be no argument: alcohol did flow freely at MIT. It was easy to come by in fraternities and independent living groups, as well as in dormitories. Whether by design or ignorance, the impression was that MIT and the campus community as a whole simply looked the other way when it came to alcohol.

Since the tragedy at Fiji, MIT has taken many positive steps towards upholding its responsibilities. MIT has made a commitment, in writing and in practice, to uphold city, state, and federal laws with respect to underage drinking and misconduct as the result of excessive drinking. In addition, MIT has implemented programs to educate students about the law, the dangers of excessive drinking, and the potential consequences of making poor decisions regarding alcohol consumption. I applaud MIT for its proactive stance along the lines of enforcement and education.

However, I have difficulty seeing alcohol at MIT as a large problem. In fact, according to studies, MIT has less of an alcohol problem than do the majority of other college campuses. Is that to say I don’t see it as a problem? No. Underage drinking is illegal and excessive drinking is dangerous. I would frame the problem with this statement: Individuals at MIT continue to drink underage, drink excessively, and create environments conducive to dangerous alcohol consumption.

I would not frame the problem with this statement (as Adams does):

“The MIT community has collectively failed to prevent underage drinking, excessive drinking, and environments conducive to dangerous alcohol consumption.”

To frame the problem in the latter manner incorrectly assumes that the MIT community is responsible for individual actions. It is not. The MIT community has a legal responsibility to enforce laws, and it has a social responsibility to educate and promote general well being. Ultimately, however, the MIT community is not responsible for making each and every individual’s personal decision regarding alcohol consumption. The individual is responsible and should be held personally accountable.

To frame the problem using the latter statement also gives rise to the wrong questions being asked, such as Adams’ litmus test -- "Would this new effort have prevented Scott Krueger’s death?” I cannot think of a single effort that could have ever definitively prevented Krueger’s death. What would make someone believe that anything could definitively be done to prevent an alcohol-related death? And why should the MIT community be saddled with this impossible task?

Let’s take a look some of the modest proposals which Adams puts forth:

Simplify the rules. In my opinion, the rules are simple. Underage drinking is illegal. Serving minors is illegal. Certain misconduct as a result of excessive drinking is illegal. Any attempt to improve the rules will only serve to complicate them. The actions on which we should focus are enforcement of the rules, and education.

Push responsibility onto alumni corporations. As an officer of an alumni corporation, I am troubled by this suggestion. My alumni corporation exists to effectively serve as landlords and advisors. We are no more responsible for the actions of individuals than MIT. I live in Manhattan and remotely carry out the duties of my office without a problem. The suggestion that I should more or less act as a parent to adult undergraduates in Cambridge, and be held partially responsible should one of them exercise poor judgment, is preposterous. If an undergraduate member of our fraternity, or the fraternity as a whole, is found to have broken laws or exercised poor judgment, they will be sanctioned and possibly punished by MIT, the IFC, or the city. In recent years, this is exactly what has happened.

Get serious about enforcement by randomly checking houses. This is not enforcement; this is a violation of rights. Such draconian, guilty-until-proven-innocent measures as randomly inspecting the homes of adults would be an invasion of privacy, an act of distrust, and an unwarranted disruption of people’s lives.

I do not see how any of the above proposals, if implemented, would have certainly prevented Krueger’s death.

I have made mistakes throughout my life and my career. I have escaped from some relatively unscathed. For others, I have paid a price. Always, I have accepted responsibility. I did not seek to blame others for my actions, or claim that some other person or organization should have been there to prevent me from making a bad decision. By accepting responsibility and recognizing where I have gone wrong, I believe I have matured into a better person. It is unfortunate that the trend today is to spread blame and responsibilities, thus obviating the valuable lessons people learn from their mistakes.

The focus of the MIT community should be to hold individuals and individual organizations responsible for alcohol violations. We should continue to enforce the laws and rules to the extent that penalties are given. We should continue to educate people about the dangers of excessive drinking. In doing so, we will impress on those who might choose to violate the laws and rules that they will be held personally accountable, and that their actions do have consequences. If an individual or a living group violates the laws and such a violation results in the expulsion of a student, or the revoking of a fraternity’s charter, then so be it.

Actions have consequences. Individual responsibility. Personal accountability. These are the types of lessons and values the MIT community should seek to teach its own. If we succeed in this endeavor, then we will succeed in mitigating the rate of alcohol-related incidents at MIT.

Jason Onysko ’97 is a member of Alpha Tau Omega’s Alumni Corporation.