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Dying for a Drink

By Daniel M. Suleiman

Scott Krueger is dead, the victim of collegiate binge drinking, and MIT president Charles Vest must now answer two former fraternity pledges who asked him in a letter in 1993, "When a student is killed or dies at an MIT fraternity, how will MIT explain its full knowledge of dangerous and illegal practices persisting unchecked over a period of years?"

Krueger's tragic death has brought important issues to light concerning binge drinking (defined as consuming five or more drinks in an evening for men and four or more for women) on college campuses and fraternities as social institutions; and it has left students, families and administrators searching for culpability.

Binge drinking is a fact of American college life. It is dangerous, it often leads to irresponsible behavior, and it happens every single night on campuses across the country.

Fraternities are often the most high profile arenas for consuming vast quantities of alcohol very quickly, in part because many have the resources to provide party-goers with as much alcohol as they can handle, and in part because many fraternities center around group binge drinking. It is not surprising that many people outside of the collegiate community, including administrators and students, do not know the extent of the alcohol abuse by college students, both because it is easier to ignore and because it is often hard to fathom.

It is not unusual for students to drink 10 beers and then take several shots of hard alcohol before vomiting or passing out. Krueger's death has brought more nationwide attention than Benjamin Wynne's, a 20-year-old Louisiana State University student and fraternity pledge, who died of acute alcohol poisoning on August 26 of this year because among other things, many people find it hard to believe that animalistic drinking goes on at what The New York Times called "perhaps the most renowned science and technology university in the world, home to some of the brightest and most promising students."

Well, it does. So take Scott Krueger's death as a wake-up call. Realize that 18-year-old Americans, especially males, are 18-year-old Americans, whether they attend a state school or an Ivy League one. And binge drinking will not go away until there is a radical change in American attitudes toward alcohol. Ala Alryyes, a former MIT undergraduate and graduate student and current instructor in Harvard's history and literature department explained that "the main problem here is a cultural problem, an American problem....The anglo-saxon take on drinking is that you drink to get wasted, to form social bonds as opposed to the Latin view of drinking, which is more social. Drinking leads to conversations instead of passing out. [In the American conception], there is a kind of prowess involved; American drinking is about bonding through suffering."

So who was responsible for Krueger's death? A culture that embraces excess? A fraternity that allows and might even encourage drinking fatal amounts? An 18-year-old who had had little access to alcohol and who was just trying to fit in? Or an institution that has looked the other way while its students drowned themselves in beer?

In some sense, all four actors share responsibility for Scott Krueger. According to The Boston Globe, five years ago, Scott R. Velasquez and Robert Plotnick, two former pledges at MIT fraternities, sent "Vest and other officials a 50-page bookle" about "drinking, drugs and peer pressure at the fraternity houses," but their efforts elicited little reaction.

The primary reason for the administration's poor response concerning fraternities is the MIT is dependent on its 39 Greek societies and independent living groups for housing its students. In an open letter to the MIT community addressing its collective tragedy, president Vest wrote that the Institute would immediately begin building new housing for its students, "with the goal of occupancy within three to four years."

But is it useful to point fingers when one student is dead and other will follow? Would prosecuting Kreger's fraternity for serving alcohol to minors be anything but hypocritical, when it has been functioning with little protest for decades? It may be therapeutic to pin the guilt on someone, but the more significant challenge in the wake of Krueger's death will be to prevent its repetition.

We live in a society that encourages drinking excessive amounts, one in which fraternity parties are common and, unlike Europe, one in which 18-year-olds have not necessarily been exposed to alcohol and its effects. Changing American cultural attitudes toward alcohol is a noble goal, but learning to navigate them is a more realistic one.

One thing we can take from Scott Krueger's death is a sense of our own mortality. He did not drink any more last weekend than many college students do regularly; the choked on his own vomit and he suffered from acute alcohol poisoning. Scott Krueger could have been any college first-year excited about being able to make independent choices, inured into the world of college binge drinking. Dr. Charles J. McCabe, associate chief of emergency services at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the Boston Globe concerning a similar case, "A young guy was out for his first time drinking and he overdid it."

And there it is. Krueger's death was tragic, but it has happened before and it will happen again, because many students are unfamiliar with their own limits. The onus of preventing alcohol-induced deaths is certainly on administrations to some degree; they must educate students about the risks of consuming large quantities of alcohol and they must encourage responsible drinking. But ultimately, college students must make their own choices. Scott Krueger, now that he's gone, is an example to every current and future college student: if it could happen to him, it could happen to you.

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