Barnhart announces period of reflection after death of Wang

‘All doors open’ response effort planned for Monday

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Phoebe Wang ‘17, in a photo uploaded to Facebook in March 2012.
Source: Facebook

President L. Rafael Reif announced Tuesday the death of Phoebe Wang ’17, who local media reported was found dead in her MacGregor dorm room. In response to her death, as well as the deaths of several other members of the MIT community in recent months, Chancellor Cynthia A. Barnhart PhD ’88 and student leaders will call on the community to spend 15 minutes this coming Monday at noon to reflect on the effects of the recent deaths.

Wang was involved in a number of groups on campus; Reif’s email to MIT said she was an active member of her dormitory as well as a flutist in the MIT Symphony Orchestra (MITSO). Adam K. Boyles, the director of MITSO, wrote, in an email to The Tech, Phoebe “was well liked and respected by our whole MITSO family. We are honored to have had her art with us, albeit too briefly.”

According to Barnhart, Wang’s death triggered “an outpouring of responses from students, staff, faculty” asking what they could do to contribute.

Barnhart, along with Undergraduate Association President Shruti Sharma ’15 and Graduate Student Council President John K. Nowocin G, will announce the “all doors open” period to take place this coming Monday at 12 p.m.

“The idea is we’re asking everyone to open your doors, to really gather together, engage with others, and maybe if that’s not what you want to do, just take the time to focus on private reflection,” said Chancellor Barnhart.

Barnhart and student leaders view this time primarily as a symbolic statement. “This is our way of saying the community does care and we want to be there for each other and provide support to each other,” she said.

Sharma added, “[I] think when we have a community doing this together, it only fortifies the message that we are a community... This is all for students.” Nowocin pointed out that students deal with death in different ways and said the “all open doors” period is a product of brainstorming among the student leaders and Barnhart.

In addition to the “all open doors” effort, Barnhart, Chair of the Faculty Steven R. Hall ScD ’85, Sharma, and Nowocin plan to announce the creation of a mailing address,, for MIT community members to share insights from the reflection. The emails will be reviewed by both Hall and Barnhart.

Barnhart hopes that this system will provide her with ideas and identify people who are interested in helping out. “It’s really important that the students are part of the solution,” stated Barnhart.

When asked whether she would use the results of Chancellor W. Eric Grimson’s PhD ’80 2011 review of MIT’s student support systems, Barnhart said that some ideas that were not yet implemented could be part of a longer process.

In their letter to the MIT community, Barnhart, Hall, Sharma, and Nowocin, write: “This pause for shared reflection is merely a beginning... we believe it is an important place to start a significant, long-term conversation for our community.”

“In recent months we have lost too many of our cherished students and dear friends,” Reif said in his letter this past Tuesday. Since March, Reif has emailed the MIT community with news of the deaths of four graduate students and Professor Seth Teller. Three of deaths have been ruled suicides. The cause of death of Austin Travis is still pending, according to the Middlesex district attorney’s office.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

... why does your link to Grimson's student support systems review point at I would like to actually read up on what his results were, and that link is not helpful.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

As a relatively new administrator to MIT, I am alarmed at the number of losses our community has endured, especially the loss of young, promising individuals. While I am aware that MIT has several offices that offer support services to students, including psychotherapy through MIT medical, I wonder what else is being done to reach out to students, staff and faculty in order to facilitate healthy discussions surrounding mental health, and to promote awareness of the services we offer. Further, I would like to see more done to encourage balance between the rigorous academic schedule, vocational, spiritual and physical/mental health. Once in a very long while I see flyers for the wellness center, or, while at MIT Medical, a flyer for a support group. However in my opinion, more needs to be done to promote well-rounded students who learn how to reach out for help, and more importantly, to be okay with doing so. So much about this campus and the emotional atmosphere is austere and isolating. It is any wonder that the students shelve themselves away when in the throws of being overwhelmed.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

FINALLY, MIT has at least acknowledging that it has a problem. The proposed idea is a baby step in the right direction. MIT needs to get its act together, fast. Your famed firehose is destroying lives.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

Too much pressure on youth. Pressure from home and from school is not healthy for anyone.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

My son a prior MIT student reached out for some mental health care at MIT and they kept postponing the apt. I think a focused effort on your system is needed.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

Mit is one of the few colleges that allow freshmen singles in dorms. That should never happen. They need roommates as a basic check and balance freshman year.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

As a parent of a recent graduate, I would suggest to the administration to also evaluate their various support groups. Some of these groups are under just as much scrutiny by the administration that they tend to follow unrealistic guidelines that by their very institutional-like presence could 'turn off' help seekers rather than attract them. In my opinion, outreach centers should not just be passive office destinations but also proactive teams that promote one-to-one peer interactions with troubled students. Suggestions from peers to perhaps meet with a guidance councilor informally rather than 'go to the office of XYZ' for professional help may be the more humane approach for students who have lived their entire life under high expectations.

In my case, I tried many times to encourage my daughter to seek help from various support groups. Strong willed as most MIT students, she viewed seeking help as a personal weakness, unacceptable in her world of self-imposed, high expectations and perfection. When I approached the support group I thought that could help her work through a P-Set challenge, their response to me was blunt. "She must come to us, if she wants help."

After much parental cajoling, she finally visited the office but the individual in charge failed to connect with her. Guidelines and protocols clouded their interaction that my daughter saw little value in pursuing it further.

I know for a fact that many of the support groups at MIT have done wonders to help students overcome their personal issues. But for the minority, which probably include some who have taken their lives on campus, the support groups may have become more of a part of the problem rather than the solution. Just by their very presence and accessibility, students who can't engage with their rigidity or formality may use their failed attempt as one more reason to withdraw from the world around them. As a parent I can't even begin to feel the pain of those who have lost their child. It must also be exceptionally difficult for President Reif to receive news that statistically seems almost inevitable.

(Continued in the next comment due to the character limitation per comment)

Anonymous about 9 years ago

As the article above emphasizes the need to involve the students into the solution, I hope my comments will encourage faculty and the university leadership to also take a step back and re-evaluate their various support group guidelines and protocols from the ground up. One idea that I could only share with the MIT community might be to develop a program that automatically creates a social network signature that defines each student individually. This information can be used to enhance like-peer interactions at either the study-group levels or other intersecting points of interest. With the help of this tool, support group offices would take on a more informed and proactive role on campus by spending more time monitoring an algorithm (developed at MIT by MIT) that evaluates each signature network along with their many intersecting overlaps to see if a suicidal behavioral pattern can be identified from social media comments (ie. FB, Twitter), web page behavior, and more.

Flagged students would be placed under observation for further discreet, confirmation from various levels of their social network either through interviews or casual encounters, (i.e. leaving class, at the Student Union, etc.).

By now, I hope my comments have a few MIT minds churning. From what I have seen come out of MIT's Labs in the past four years, I am fairly certain that the algorithm I am suggesting already exists for another application and would require minor tweaks to begin a pilot.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

I am a parent of a recent MIT graduate, who had problems while at MIT, some related to adjusting to college, the difficulty of his, classes, and some related to personal issues. He has had many supportive friends at MIT, and was able to access help, although it was extremely difficult for him to take the steps to do so, out of fear and depression. He has said that he thinks some of the MIT mental health people are good at connecting with their patients, and others are arrogant and clueless. As others have posted, my son found some support groups really helped him, and others did not. I really feel that first of all, students need to watch out and care for each other, and speak out for anyone who seems to be struggling, for whatever reason, even if the support services available are not what they need to be. Every single life saved is of incalculable value.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

How about 30 minutes of shutting your laptop, cell phone, take the ear buds out and look and listen to the people around you. Pick your head up in the elevator and hallway. We had a murder out in the open on campus and no one notice. What a sin.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

I am so glad my kids chose to go to other selective schools (where they do have empathetic support) instead of MIT. Such callousness at MIT should be leading the administration to do a lot of soul searching right now instead of putting out platitudes that are being reported.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

MIT is more worried about avoiding lawsuits than helping students... therefore, MIT will throw out most students at the first hint of suicidal ideation.

Students aren't stupid. They've watched people get kicked out again and again for mental health issues. So they don't seek help for fear of getting kicked out as well.

If MIT wants to stop student deaths, MIT needs to stop treating suicidal students like the plague. Cure them, or help them deal... stop tossing them out on the street.

- Recent alum

Anonymous about 9 years ago

#12: Ummmmmm....... do you have any evidence of any of that whatsoever? Because that sounds like total bullshit. Give me one example of a person who was kicked out due to mental health issues. Just one.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

Wait I know literally more than 10.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

13 - You're fucking joking right?

Anonymous about 9 years ago

Please note that no one is ever held accountable for student suicides. If anything bad happens in an FSILG, it is attributed to "bad character" of the house, it it is shut down or penalized. The last time we had a spate of suicides in 2011, it was MacGregor again, and a younger student in a single. After a review, the Institute sent out RLAD's into the dorms, presumably to watch out for things like this, because the housemasters were too busy and the GRT's too stupid or didn't care to get involved. How about holding someone accountable? Should the housemaster or RLAD be fired for a poor house culture which doesn't pay attention to isolated people? Should we not allow freshmen and sophomores in singles? About time such questions got asked and answered.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

15 - No, I'm not "fucking joking". Give me one example of a person who was kicked out of MIT because they had a mental health issue. ONE. DO IT.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

17, do you realize that you are asking 15 to violate the privacy of students? I personally have multiple friends (mostly not close friends, but friends nonetheless) who were forced to go to McLean and then only given a short time to pack their things and leave MIT.

Student Support Services will probably dance the line with you, but if you set up an appointment there, they may be willing to confirm something like: "MIT will remove a student from campus if the student is suicidal and MIT is determined to be a contributing factor" or something like that.

The problem is, with lawsuit concerns, MIT will jump to "MIT is a contributing factor, just get them out" a little too quickly.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

17 - Please don't be this aggressive. This is a delicate issue and we should all not have explosive reactions in this thread.

I do personally know 3 friends that were send home because of problems and 2 of those never came back, for better or for worse. So it does happen and if it hasn't happened to your close circle of people that is no evidence that it is not out there.

It is something that is in the back of the mind of most students that go to Mental Health. All MIT students are there because they are very persevering, very competitive and very proud. It is very hard to face the prospect of being sent home. Even if it is so you can get better.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

we're gonna open perfectputt by campus where every miniature golf hole is augmented by electromagnets and ferrous golf balls so everyone always gets a hole in one and then they can return to their studies at the soul-sucking 'tute with at least a small victory under their belts .... That and MIT students are welcome to hang out no charge as we're alumni and always wished that there was somewhere slightly hipper than the fifth floor of the student center (ugh) to hang. Enough talk of lawsuits, firings, etc. every little bit helps .... Now, the option to hack your friends by switching the ring around the cup such that the ball will never sink costs extra :-)

Anonymous about 9 years ago

19 - Yes, it is a delicate issue. And people like 12/14/15 who push a narrative that MIT will "kick you out" for mental health issues are a huge part of the problem.

I personally know (as in they're my friends, not just someone else who lives in my dorm that I vaguely know about) two people who took leaves of absence due to mental health concerns and then returned. One was then diagnosed with a mental disorder during that absence, and was readmitted despite that. That's a far cry from what commenter #12 would have you believe.

MIT has never kicked someone out solely for having a mental health issue. Ever. If you know someone who had mental health issues and subsequently left MIT, there's a lot more to that story than just "mental health problem" - "expulsion".

Anonymous about 9 years ago

21 - MIT kicks most people out who have suicidal ideation, not all mental health problems. I assure you, I know my friends and their experiences far more than you do.

And yes, the narrative of MIT kicking people out is hugely problematic. It is also true, which means the problem lies with MIT.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

12 said that people get kicked out for mental health issues. What actually happens is that MIT removes suicidal people from the source of their stress, and allows them to rejoin if they recover. Extremely different narratives. "Kicked out" implies that it's permanent.

And don't you think it would be far more irresponsible for MIT to allow people who have become suicidal from the stress to stay?

The problem is with parents and communities that have created a culture where getting a bad grade is the most shameful thing you can do.

Caroline Morganti '16 about 9 years ago

23 - "And don't you think it would be far more irresponsible for MIT to allow people who have become suicidal from the stress to stay?"

It's the difficult/selective readmission process that people are scared of. It's not leaving to get better, per se, it's that in leaving you're taking a huge risk in never coming back. I don't think MIT posts readmission rates for these situations anywhere, but they're rumored to be low.

Anonymous almost 9 years ago

23 - Don't you think it's astonishingly irresponsible to remove people from their support sources and community in some sort of one-size-fits-all approach, without giving them the resources they need to even start fixing themselves? Not all students have great parents to be resources, and many come to see their dorm communities as families.

I took leave from MIT (medical leave rather than mental health leave, but still). As Caroline said, the process for getting back in was very stressful and uncertain. And previously suicidal people report getting rejected from it multiple times -- it approaches impossible for them.