National News

MIT Is Not Responsible for Student’s Suicide, Court Rules

Posted May 7, 2018 7:02 p.m. EDT
Updated May 7, 2018 7:06 p.m. EDT

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In a legal case closely watched for its potential implications for universities nationwide, Massachusetts’s highest court ruled Monday that MIT could not be held responsible for the 2009 suicide of one of its students.

Broadly, the Supreme Judicial Court said in its 44-page ruling, “there is no duty to prevent another from committing suicide.”

While the court said MIT was not liable in this case, it suggested that there could be limited circumstances in which universities could bear some responsibility for protecting their students. These circumstances could include when a student expressly states plans to commit suicide.

But overall, universities “are not responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of their students’ lives,” the court wrote, and there is “universal recognition” that the age of “in loco parentis,” in which universities stand in place of parents, is long over.

While MIT has had an unusually high rate of student suicides, the problem affects universities across the country, with an estimated 1,100 college students a year taking their own lives, according to court documents. Preventing them from doing so has become increasingly complex, universities say, in part because of expanded student expectations of privacy and autonomy.

Courts generally have been reluctant to rule that faculty and administrators — who are rarely clinically trained in suicide prevention — are responsible if students end up killing themselves.

In this case, the student, Han Nguyen, was 25 and a Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management when he jumped to his death from a campus building.

His family’s lawyers said in court papers that they believed that MIT, two of its professors and a dean of student life were legally bound to care for Nguyen and to prevent the suicide. They even suggested that one of the professors, Birger Wernerfelt, had caused it, noting that Nguyen had leapt to his death just moments after the professor had harshly criticized him.

Lawyers for the student’s father said that MIT was well aware of Nguyen’s fragile mental state, noting that Wernerfelt had even taken steps to ease the stress on the student because he did not want the institute to have “blood on its hands.”

Lawyers for the family also said that MIT’s student support services were inadequate and that while some campuses — notably, the University of Illinois — had long ago put in place programs that reduced the rate of suicides, the rate at MIT remained disturbingly high.

MIT argued that Nguyen had been dealing with mental health issues long before he came to MIT, including two previous suicide attempts, and that while at MIT he received care from nine different mental health professionals — none of whom had any affiliation with the university and none of whom deemed him at “imminent risk” of killing himself.

Moreover, the university said, Nguyen “repeatedly declined to avail himself of support resources MIT offered.” Nguyen had written in an email to the university that he wanted to keep his mental problems separate from his academic issues.

MIT said that if the court sided with the family, it would “transform the relationship between faculty and their students.”

In a brief supporting MIT, 18 other Massachusetts universities, including Harvard University, Amherst College, Smith College and Boston University, warned that requiring nonclinical faculty to prevent potential suicides could have disastrous effects. Professors, in seeking to protect themselves from liability, they said, might go overboard in monitoring students, which could drive students underground and dissuade them from talking to anyone about their problems.

In its ruling Monday, the high court affirmed a lower court’s decision and ordered the case be dismissed. It noted that the university could do little when Nguyen repeatedly refused offers of help. “In these circumstances, as a matter of law, a 25-year-old graduate student’s rights to privacy, autonomy, and self-determination were properly respected,” the court wrote.

The court also exonerated the professor who warned that MIT could have “blood on its hands.” The judges said the remark was “stated metaphorically” and in a different context, not based on explicit statements by Nguyen that he intended to take his life.

Jeffrey Beeler, a lawyer for the family, said in a statement that the family was disappointed. But, he said, by suggesting that universities could be held responsible under certain circumstances, the ruling could “save student lives going forward.”

MIT said in a statement that the university already offers “a robust network” of support services, including comprehensive mental health counseling, and is continually trying to enhance those services.