Professors With Blood On Their Hands

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will face a very difficult decision about whether two Sloan school profs at MIT should be held liable for the suicide of one of their students.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments Tuesday concerning whether MIT, along with two Sloan professors and an S3 dean, should be held responsible for the 2009 suicide of PhD student Han Nguyen G.

Sloan is the name of MIT’s business school, and S3 is student support services. The nature of the student population may be a bit more peculiar than most given their selection process and culture.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of the school, the outcome could give rise to a new cause of action against academics.

Nguyen’s advisers and professors, including defendants Drazen Prelec and Birger Wernerfelt, had been aware that the 25-year-old, who jumped from the roof of Building E19, had problems with his mental health. With general exams approaching, Wernerfelt had related in an email to a colleague that “we have pretty much decided to pass him no matter what,” according to the plaintiff’s filing, which also noted that Wernerfelt had repeatedly mentioned he did not want “blood on his hands” regarding Nguyen’s situation.

Though the Sloan faculty passed Nguyen on his general exams, they attempted to convince him to pursue a master’s degree instead of a doctorate. Prelec went on to renege on a promise to write Nguyen a letter of recommendation for a UCLA summer program.

On the one side, they obviously knew Nguyen’s mental health was fragile. When someone says he doesn’t want “blood on his hands,” it’s hard to claim that he had no clue. But then, so what? Professors aren’t psychologists, aren’t charged with the magic ability to differentiate between the student who is fragile and the student who is suicidal.

On the other hand, there were resources available to Nguyen, and he chose to avail himself of them to some extent, but not so far as to address his suffering. If the student chooses not to pursue treatment, does the burden shift to his B-School professors?

The particulars of this case aside, this action calls into question the role of an academic in the mental health of a student. The primary function is to provide a rigorous education, and that includes criticism when warranted.

The prosecution’s* brief went on to state that Wernerfelt “read [Nguyen] the riot act” (verbally lambasted him) by phone at the behest of Prelec minutes before the student committed suicide, over an email the student had sent earlier that day. The email relayed Nguyen’s “concerns” about a position he had been offered in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, to which Prelec “took offense” and which he described in an email to Wernerfelt as “totally out of line.”

There are academics who believe that there is never a reason to “verbally lambast” a student, as being entirely counterproductive to pedagogy. There are others who believe that a graduate student should be mature enough to handle “the riot act,” or at least not require unwarranted gentle handling. Should the chosen pedagogy be part of the mix, or should it not matter whether the professor is tough, even harsh?

The question is whether academics have a duty to their students to discern when their psychological state is on the cusp of suicide, and what violates that duty. If Nguyen’s work was so inadequate that they felt compelled to pass him because of his mental health, it seems that he shouldn’t have been there at all. But then, if they didn’t pass him and he committed suicide because of flunking out, would it change their responsibility to their student?

It would seem the answer hinges on whether the job of academic is limited to instruction, or extends to a student’s mental health. While being a decent human being suggests that profs who recognize that their student is suffering should do something, does that mean they are liable for making the wrong call? Or liable for not realizing how serious the problem is? Or liable for performing their educational function first? Or liable for preferring a tough pedagogy over warm and fuzzy?

Schools like MIT (and other very competitive institutions) are hard places. They’re meant to be. They never promised an easy A, or even a gentlemen’s C, and students who choose to go there know this. And sometimes, can’t handle the pressure. Does that make the profs liable?

*This should read “plaintiff’s” or “appellant’s,” but apparently the writer fails to distinguish between criminal and civil parties.

5 comments on “Professors With Blood On Their Hands

  1. B. McLeod

    Such incidents illustrate the limitations of academia. Just as university faculty and administrators should not attempt to run quasi-criminal tribunals, they also should not attempt to diagnose and treat mental health issues. They are not trained to do these things, and shouldn’t be expected to undertake them.

    What we are seeing here is the intersection of the unintended consequences of “progressive” dogma, and the current “progressive” attempts to incrementally repair those consequences. Having decided some decades ago that people with serious mental issues should be allowed to roam and should be expected to function like anybody else, now “progressives” see that somebody (somebody ELSE, of course) needs to be made responsible to take care of them, cradle to grave. So, after the parents, we task the universities, then the employers, then whatever facilities for the elderly (and, if the train goes off the tracks anywhere along the way, the criminal justice system fills in as needed). Splendid. This is why we should continue to let “progressives” redesign society.

      1. B. McLeod

        That appears to be the over-arching axiom, even though it often leaves us hurrying on to “fix” the problems that the last “solution” caused.

  2. Nigel Declan

    Funny how a lack of training and licensure is ample grounds for universities to argue that professors are not qualified to act as clinicians, but are no impediment whatsoever to having them act as lawyers and judges when it comes to questions of sexual assault and harassment.

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