Controversial MIT-Related Cases Resolved Last Year

MIT administrators and lawyers may be breathing a bit easier in 2007, for 2006 saw the resolution of three controversial, protracted, legal and procedural battles. In two cases related to alleged student suicides, MIT settled out-of-court with the families of the deceased, and in a third case, MIT acquiesced to Department of Defense desires and allowed the DOD to handle an investigation into alleged fraud by MIT researchers.

The cases may be over but the shroud of secrecy hangs over all three settlements: in the suicide cases terms of the out-of-court settlements were not disclosed, and in the scientific fraud case, the Department of Defense has apparently given no time line for the investigation.

Perhaps the most high-profile of these legal battles was the case of Elizabeth H. Shin ’02. Killed by a fire in her dorm room in April 2002, her death was initially ruled a suicide by the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Cambridge Fire Department. Later, however, toxicology tests revealed that Shin had overdosed on a number of medications at the time the fire broke out. In January 2002, Shin’s parents, Cho and Kisuk Shin, filed a civil wrongful death suit against not only MIT and Elizabeth Shin’s mental health care providers at MIT Medical, but also student-life administrators and dormitory housemasters, and MIT Police officers.

MIT fought all charges, against both itself and its named employees. Its first detailed response to the lawsuit, in March 2002, alleged that Shin’s death was caused by emotional problems going back to before her matriculation at MIT, and was compounded by her parents’ negative reaction to her earlier suicide attempts. It was also argued that the MIT staff named in the suit could not be held responsible for Shin’s death under Massachusetts law.

In June 2005, the Massachusetts Superior Court dismissed charges against MIT and its police officers, but held MIT administrators and the MIT medical clinicians potentially liable for Shin’s death. The suit thus went forward. Still facing charges were MIT Medical mental health doctors Peter Reich, Linda Cunningham, Kristine A. Gerard, and Anthony Van Niel; Associate Dean Arnold R. Henderson, and Random Hall housemaster Nina Davis-Millis.

“There was a special relationship between the MIT Administrators, Henderson and Davis-Millis, and Elizabeth imposing a duty on Henderson and Davis-Millis to exercise reasonable care to protect Elizabeth from harm,” wrote Superior Court justice, Christine M. McEvoy, in a key finding of her ruling.

MIT continued to fight the charges against its employees, and the case attracted increasing national attention. At issue was whether college administrators — especially student life staff like Random Hall Housemaster Davis-Millis and Associate Dean Henderson — could be held legally responsible for student suicides.

Alarmed by the prospect that clinically untrained administrators across the country might be held personally liable for student suicides, schools in Massachusetts, and around the country filed amicus briefs in March of 2006, arguing that the court’s finding that non-clinicians may face liability for suicides “creates incentives for non-clinicians to act in ways that may be inconsistent with the judgment of treating clinicians, and that may not be in the best interests of troubled students,” in the words of a brief filed by eight prominent national universities.

The surprise out-of-court settlement, announced in April, sidestepped these issues. The Shin family agreed that Elizabeth’s death was likely an accident, according to a short statement released to the MIT community by Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75.

The terms of the settlement were not disclosed, although MIT sources said that any payouts to the Shin family would not come from endowment funds, but rather insurance providers.

Also settled out of court last year was a $20 million wrongful-death lawsuit against MIT and Charvak P. Karpe G, in response to the suicide of Julia M. Carpenter ’03. Karpe was accused of stalking Carpenter, sleeping outside of her Random Hall dorm room and stealing private videos of her and her boyfriend.

Carpenter reported Karpe’s actions to Random Hall’s Judicial Committee, and although he did not dispute the allegations, the Judicial Committee did not reach any decision and the case was deferred to the office of Larry G. Benedict, Senior Associate Dean for Students. He moved Karpe to East Campus, but in February and in April, Random Hall’s Judiciary Committee and an administrative review panel convoked by Benedict reached decisions that could have allowed Karpe to move back into Random Hall.

Carpenter picked up an unattended copy of the latter panel’s decision on April 25, 2001, and bought sodium cyanide through the Internet on the same day, according to the lawsuit. On April 29, Carpenter ingested the cyanide, and was found dead the following morning. The Office of the Suffolk County Medical Examiner ruled her death a suicide.

Carpenter’s parents filed the lawsuit in June of 2003. MIT employees charged in the suit had included then-President Charles M. Vest, Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict, Senior Associate Dean for Students Robert M. Randolph, then-Assistant Dean Carol Orme-Johnson and Random Housemaster Nina Davis-Millis.

In addition to claiming that the MIT administrators’ negligence resulted in Carpenter’s death, the suit also charged MIT with breach of contract, for failing to provide a safe housing environment in which Carpenter was protected from harassers. The suit also charged Karpe with assault and battery.

The out-of-court settlement was announced in September 2006. The terms were not disclosed.

The Carpenter case did not attract the national attention that the Shin case did, perhaps because of the administrators’ involvement in the decisions surrounding Karpe’s return to Random Hall.

In the Shin case, settlement prevented what would have been a very high-profile trial from going forward, and thus protected the MIT administrators and clinicians from the deep public scrutiny of a trial. Since the Shins agreed that Elizabeth Shin’s death was likely an accident, no MIT employee was held liable for her death.

The third case “resolved” by MIT in 2006 was a complex allegation of scientific fraud which extended back nearly a decade, to 1996. MIT’s involvement began in 1997, when two Lincoln Laboratory researchers, Charles K. Meins ’75 and Ming-Jer Tsai, were asked by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization to lead the Phase One Engineering Team to study the data from the flight test of a sensor designed to detect incoming missiles.

The designer of the sensor, TRW Inc., had previously faced allegations from its employee, Nira Schwartz, that the sensor’s performance was exaggerated. In 1998, the team’s review found that the allegations generally without merit.

In 2000 Schwartz obtained a copy of the team’s report and sent it to MIT professor Theodore Postol ’67. In 2001, Postol lobbied senior MIT administrators to repudiate the POET report, calling it “a serious case of scientific fraud.” In February 2002, then-provost Robert A. Brown agreed to a preliminary investigation into the fraud allegations against the MIT researchers. Shortly after, two Government Accountability Office reports which sharply criticized the POET report were released. In March 2003, Brown announced that he believes a full-blown investigation is warranted, but that MIT “must explore with the relevant federal agencies the steps necessary to permit the investigation to proceed.”

In December 2004, then MIT President Charles M. Vest announced that “MIT has identified a panel of distinguished outside investigators, all of whom have appropriate security clearances, to conduct the investigation. However, we have not yet been successful in obtaining approval from the Missile Defense Agency [which was formerly called the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization] to give them access to this classified information. Without access, the investigation cannot be conducted.”

The following day, the Missile Defense Agency announced that it believed enough investigations had already been conducted into the disputed flight test. MIT and the DOD thus remained in a deadlock.

Three years after Brown’s initial statement, in March 2006, the DOD and MIT agreed on the parameters of an investigation: MIT would not conduct its own investigation. Instead, a DOD civilian employee, Brendan B. Godfrey, who was not affiliated with the Missile Defense Agency, would conduct the investigation. At MIT’s insistence, a government outsider and former member of MIT’s Corporation, Norman R. Augustine, was appointed to act as an advisor to the investigation. Under the disclosed terms of the investigation, however, only Godfrey, not Augustine, has been permitted to have full access to all of the classified materials in the case. No time line has apparently been set for the conclusion of the investigation.

“We wanted to conduct our own investigation, that was Plan A,” said Associate Provost Claude R. Canizares to the Boston Globe after the compromise was announced. “What we have here is Plan B.”

Postol, the MIT professor who has long pursued the case, told The Boston Globe that “What MIT is in effect doing is turning over responsibilities for oversight of its own academic operations to the Department of Defense.”

In May, an ad hoc committee formed by Provost Rafael Reif charged with determining why the case was so prolonged found that many factors had contributed to the considerable delay between the initial allegations of fraud and MIT’s response. Some of these were attributed to Postol. They accused Postol of “repeated breaches of confidentiality by the complainant throughout the process,” which they said contributed to heightened tensions and associated delays in the case. The committee also found that Postol failed to adequately document his allegations.

“The inquiry was hampered by the lack of a definitive formulation of the allegation and by the fact that the complainant [Postol] lacked confidence in the process,” they wrote. By agreeing to the defense department investigation and conducting an internal inquiry in the reasons for the delay, then, the MIT administration has discharged its duty to respond to the fraud allegations, and can now simply wait for the outcome of Godfrey’s investigation.

MIT administrators have thus managed to extricate themselves from the legal and procedural wranglings resulting from the tragic student deaths and from the DOD dispute. But the disturbing questions raised by these three cases remain. Taken together, they suggest that administrators’ freedom to pursue their own research oversight and student-life agendas may be eroding. Doubt has thus been cast over the current scope of college administrators’ legal responsibilities and powers, and likely, there will be no definitive resolution until similar cases, from MIT or from elsewhere, materialize.