Massachusetts’ highest court to rule on MIT’s role in 2009 suicide

Case could set precedent for universities across the country, 18 colleges file brief in support of Institute defendants

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. The court’s decision could have important repercussions for universities if the Institute is found to be at fault.

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.

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.”

Nguyen’s father Dzung Duy Nguyen brought the suit against MIT in 2011, claiming that Prelec and Wernerfelt, as well as S3 Senior Associate Dean David Randall, were responsible for the wrongful death of his son. It has since been fought and appealed to the state’s highest court.

“There has been a profound sea change in thinking about suicide,” prosecuting attorney Jeffrey S. Beeler said during his statement. “No longer is [it] viewed as unpreventable.”

The stakes extend beyond just MIT: if the court rules in the elder Nguyen’s favor, it could set a statewide or national precedent that the duty to prevent students from committing suicide extends to university professors and faculty members.

A group of 18 Massachusetts universities, including Harvard University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, filed an amicus brief in support of the defendants. They argued that “unlike clinicians, [professors and faculty] do not have years of graduate education, clinical training, professional experience, and licensure upon which to base judgments about a student’s mental health,” and that professors overzealously checking on students’ mental health could have a chilling effect on students reporting their issues to actual professionals.

Beeler argued that MIT had many opportunities to engage with Nguyen, but “they dropped him” by not encouraging him to return to Mental Health or S3 when his visits were unsuccessful. “You miss the opportunities that these schools have to intervene early in the process” by waiting for “imminent” threats, such as a student about to jump off a building, before taking action, he said.

Beeler noted ironically that much of his argument was derived from what MIT and other colleges have said about implementing suicide prevention programs. “Most of what we’re saying comes from them … comes from MIT’s Mental Health,” he said.

Defense counsel Kevin P. Martin framed his statements around the independence and autonomy that Nguyen had demanded — Nguyen, at 25, was older than most students at MIT, lived off campus, and refused extended treatment from MIT professionals. “Mr. Nguyen’s estate ... is asking for a duty to be imposed that is contrary to what Mr. Nguyen wanted when he was alive,” he said.

The plaintiff’s filing stated that Nguyen had visited Student Disability Services, Mental Health, and S3, but found none of them helpful. However, he continually sought psychiatric treatment at nine hospitals, including Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital, throughout his time at MIT, which Martin used in support of his argument.

The Court asked Martin how it should get past the “blood on his hands” remark a few times during the hearing. Martin responded that there is no evidence Wernerfelt knew of Nguyen’s health problems at the time of the suicide and that the remark in context did not imply that Wernerfelt suspected that Nguyen had suicidal ideations.

Both the Court and Martin questioned the prosecution’s demand that professors be tasked with a “duty of reasonable care” for their students, asking if the same duty should be given to parents for their children, employers for their employees, or landlords for their tenants. Beeler responded that the definition of the duty will depend on future cases.

Martin said that between 16 and 18 percent of college students consult mental health services each year, so a duty to care for these students could overwhelm professors and lead to mistaken diagnoses due to high rates of mental illness. “A university should not begin treating a student against their will as if they pose a constant suicide threat,” he said.

Beeler recommended that universities require students to authorize them to contact outside professionals if they encounter risk.

“Resistance from students … is common, it happens all the time,” he said. “Schools do what is appropriate to keep them in the system … [to] keep them alive.”