Academic Hothouse

I’ve effectively narrowed my Google reader these days that if the blogs aren’t talking about the elections, I’m not reading them. But I feel compelled, obligated even, to talk about the shootings at NIU yesterday.

The most up-to-date reporting has two parallel threads: that the student was a well-liked, respected student (link above), and that he had recently stopped taking his medications (scripts not yet identifed). Especially after VA Tech, we’re familiar – if still unprepared to deal with – the *plotline* of untreated or *mis-managed* mental illness that weaves through these tragedies. At NIU, people seem mystified that this accomplished student deemed a contributing member of academic society could turn up and fire into a crowd of his peers at random and then kill himself. Nonetheless, I’m sure as the days pass the usual story of “we should have seen it coming” will continue to develop.

Listening to right-leaning talk radio the other night (here in MA that means Republicans arguing in favor of gun control), a former school board member and trustee was trying to explain that often this level of atrocity is not preventable. If MIT is any guide, I’m inclined to agree. Most campuses, sometimes surprisingly so, are accessible 24/7. MIT is a large, sprawling urban campus, with no clear borders and some doors that are never, ever locked. Most of the time, the few violent assaults (not necessarily on students) in the area of or around campus, whether by strangers or folks associated with a transitional house adjacent to one of the dorms, are minimized in formal release statements from MIT or Harvard police or the university administrations. Finally, last year, an eventful one in which MIT repeatedly showed up in the local and national press for one crisis after another, one of our students was stabbed in his dorm 10 times by an ex-girlfriend who was a student at Wellesley College; the major lesson learned from that experience was to belatedly tighten security at the dorms.

But I think this notion of “good kids gone bad” is under explored in this tragedy.

Though they may never take it as far as a horrific suicide or murder-suicide, a small percentage of high-achieving kids routinely fall apart in the new normal university environment of high stakes and concurrent growing levels of mental illness. Add to that the devolution of work and responsibility for students to adjunct faculty who travel from campus to campus and other students themselves – i.e., graduate students who act as T.A.s and dorm supervisors – and it’s no surprise that everyone killed yesterday at NIU was a student, including the graduate student teaching the introductory course to 150-200 undergrads. How many of those present in the room were even legal to rent a car on their own?

MIT is perhaps the epitome of the “pressure cooker” environment increasingly prevalent on college campuses. Our most high profile tragedy, the suicide-by-fire of undergraduate Elizabeth Shin in 2000, was one of 12 suicides on campus between 1990 and 2002. Shin’s parents ultimately filed a wrongful death suit against the university (recently settled out of court with a sealed agreement), arguing:

that M.I.T., overly concerned with protecting Elizabeth’s confidentiality, failed to inform them of their daughter’s precipitous deterioration in the month before her death. This, they say, robbed them of a chance to oversee her care or perhaps even to save her life. M.I.T., the Shins claim, made matters worse by failing to act in their place, ”in loco parentis to the deceased.” The school did not provide adequate, coordinated mental health care for their daughter, they claim, nor a proper emergency response to the fire.

The article goes on to highlight the typical grand scale and often imperious, removed response of the university:

The Shins do not blame the intense character of M.I.T. per se; they do not claim that M.I.T. drove Elizabeth to the brink and over it. But, with 12 suicides since 1990, M.I.T. is battling a reputation as a pressure cooker, and it is against this backdrop that the university is vigorously defending itself. M.I.T. denies any responsibility for what it described in a statement as a ”tragedy.” More broadly, M.I.T. sees this as a high-stakes case that touches on timely, knotty issues affecting all institutions of higher education. ”We have to win,” an M.I.T. official told me several times. ”If we don’t, it has implications for every university in this country.”

The article also details the state-by-state wrangle over the interpretation of the in loco parentis rights and responsibilities of schools, and the batten-down-the-hatches response of some universities regarding their liability. More recently, student Daniel Barclay’s death due to what his mother sees as the same lax university oversight prompted this response from MIT:

“Privacy is important,” says MIT Chancellor Phillip Clay. He says MIT protects student privacy not only because it’s the law, but because it is central to maintaining students’ trust. “Different students will do different things that they absolutely don’t want their parents to know about,” he says. “Students expect this kind of safe place where they can address their difficulties, try out lifestyles and be independent of their parents.”

Yet, Clay goes on to acknowledge that students are much closer to their parents now than a decade or longer ago, intimating that in loco parentis might need to evolve to reflect this increased parental involvement in young adults’ lives.

As anyone who followed the James Sherley hunger strike last year after he was denied tenure knows, MIT has a formidable history of telling its *victims* to F- Off until the Institute is otherwise forced to repent. It’s a brutal world inside these walls, a place where I feel more on my own and isolated than I’ve ever felt in my life, a place where MIT Medical has the psych and sleep meds at the ready and encourages the use of its walk-in mental health services, a place with lavish athletic facilities to encourage us to blow off some steam, and a place with colloquial “suicide (Tues)days” tacked on to long holiday weekends to get kids out of the libraries and labs.

Because we need it. Prior to Barclay’s death, which occurred during the week of the VA Tech shootings, he’d been required to seek mental health care by MIT after he dropped out of contact for weeks on end:

The second semester of his sophomore year, Daniel took off. He stopped living in his dorm and dropped out of contact with his parents for several weeks, although he continued attending classes sporadically and emailing friends. Ms. Kayton says she called MIT repeatedly requesting that someone locate her son, who as it turned out was living in classrooms and the library. She says MIT administrators found Daniel and recommended he receive counseling at the mental-health center or leave school. (my emphases)

Barbara Baker, MIT’s senior associate dean for students, told [Daniel’s mother] it wasn’t unusual for students to take a break from school or drop out of communication to study.

I smiled the first time I saw a student asleep on a windowsill by an elevator bank here; I think it was during my first year here, the one where I lost 10 lbs from the stress. Now, in year four, that doesn’t seem quite as amusing. My heart goes out to the victims’ families and the members of the NIU community.


1 Response to “Academic Hothouse”

  1. 1 donna darko
    February 15, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    College kids are 18 years old but not always ready for college. Taking time off to work before school helps mature students before they go to school.

    Shin attempted suicide before MIT because she was salutatorian not valedictorian. Her parents, and especially Asian parents, are often not aware of mental health issues, to the detriment of their children.

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