The Editorials of E. Desiderius

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Colleges, Suicide And Liability: Meet the New Parents

In 2000, an MIT student made repeated suicide threats, and then later tragically died in a fire in her dorm, when her candles sparked a larger fire. Initially ruled a suicide, later evidence posited that the young woman may have been unconscious due to a drug overdose and been unable to awaken and save herself from the blaze.

Out of all this tragedy, the young woman’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claiming that they did not do enough to protect their daughter [1]. This author fully comprehends the grief and anger they may have felt over the death of a child. However, making colleges and universities responsible for students’ suicides is a bad policy that pushes universities closer and closer to the role of full-time nanny.

Once, a university experience was one of growth and maturity, and of individual responsibility and a taste of independent living. However, college has ceased to become such. Instead, it can be viewed through Nietzsche terms. It has become a struggle between student’s basest Dionysian impulses of excess and freedom against the Apollonian demand for civility, order and rational exercise that higher learning demands. Students engage in destructive over-indulgence under the noses of their often strict and watchful RAs. Meanwhile, the academic institution insists that the college experience is about learning and personal growth. In reality, colleges have stepped into a role they never should have: parent. And holding a school responsible for a student’s suicide has crossed a line that never should have been crossed.

The relationship between college students in university residence or housing and their institution should be that of a tenant and a landlord. Students should have the right not to have their rooms searched unreasonably, not to be disturbed or inspected by RAs suspecting alcohol or drug abuses. It is incredible the privacy violation that American students put it up with in relation to university systems in other countries. Commonwealth countries, like Britain and Canada, do it differently. There is not the cultural of supervision that American schools have. In many Canadian schools, RAs do not have disciplinary powers, and students have the same rights in their rooms as they would if they were tenants in an apartment building. It is time for American students to ask for similar rights and privileges. It is time for parents to step back and realize that young people make mistakes, and some will be tragic, and no amount of supervision will ever stop that.

The young woman who died at MIT was clearly a bright young woman, who had pre-existing psychiatric conditions. Given her circumstances, it would have better if her parents had stepped in and encouraged her to seek better treatment than the counselors at MIT, rather than leaving her in school. Ultimately, she died a tragic death. However, this should not be a rallying cry for universities to take on the burden of protecting students even further. It should be a lesson in pushing the bounds of supervision too far. Academic institutions are institutions of learning, and their supervisory role is already too great. George Washington University went so far to toss a depressed student out of the university to avoid legal responsibility [2]. [3]. Is this the role we want universities to play? Tossing depressed students out in the cold to avoid a legal responsibility, which they never should have been burdened with, and a supervisory role that they have already taken too far?

-E. Desiderius

-Full Disclosure- This author attended a Commonwealth university.

Relevant Links:
[1] Boston Globe – Parents Strike Settlement With MIT in Death of Daughter
[2] Washington Post – GWU”s Misplaced Priorities
[3] Washington Post – GWU Suit Prompts Questions of Liability

Posted by George Gordon | Wednesday, April 05, 2006 | E-mail this post

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