Tragedy struck when eight years ago Han Nguyen, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, jumped off the roof of a campus building to his death. Now, the Nguyen family is suing MIT for negligence, arguing that the University could have helped prevent his death.
Boston College—along with 17 other Massachusetts universities, including Harvard University, Boston University, and Northeastern University—signed an amicus brief in support of MIT’s defense against the allegations in May. The case was heard by the Massachusetts Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The brief contends that MIT should not be held responsible because it sets a precedent that university employees, even those without mental health expertise, are responsible for detecting students at risk of taking their own lives. The signees argue that this precedent would lead to faculty overreacting to situations, in addition to distracting them from their other responsibilities, such as teaching or research.
The precedent would also “require non-clinician employees to take actions that would be contrary to existing state and federal statutory law,” the brief argues. “Unlike clinicians, non-clinician university employees have no authority under Massachusetts law to restrain or apply for the involuntary hospitalization of students who may commit self-harm.”
University Spokesman Jack Dunn said the University had no further comment, saying the brief reflects BC’s position and that of the other universities that signed on.
The 18 universities that signed on to the brief cite on-campus mental health resources that they provide as evidence of their efforts to prevent self-harm. At BC, more than 1,800 students utilize University Counseling Services every year for assistance with a wide range of different issues, according to a letter from the Director of UCS Craig Burns. UCS provides one-on-one counseling and psychotherapy for students.
Nguyen had been in contact with his professors about his mental health issues before his death, but his parents allege that MIT is partially responsible for his suicide because they say its faculty did not fulfill its obligation to provide him with the aid necessary to prevent it. As a 2015 Boston.com article states, the family’s attorney pointed to an exchange between Nguyen and one of his professors, Birger Wernerfelt, shortly before the suicide, in which Wernerfelt “read him the Riot Act,” as he told his colleague Drazen Prelec moments after.
MIT argued, however, that faculty had made efforts to help Nguyen. According to The Globe, faculty “gave him extra time [on] … exams and were committed to passing him.” MIT also pointed out that Nguyen had rejected MIT’s counseling services, opting instead to see outside professionals.
MIT has struggled with student suicide for years. Despite having one of the most comprehensive college counseling programs in the country, a 2015 Boston Globe analysis of public records found MIT’s suicide rate to be 12.5 per 100,000 people, almost double the national average for universities of 7.5 suicides per 100,000 people.
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