December 3, 2008

A passing...and another one soon to be

About a month or so ago, Wabash College lost a member of their pretty small family. Freshman Johnny Smith was found dead in his fraternity house, an apparent casualty of alcohol poisoning. Subsequent tests seem to have borne out the connection to alcohol in his death.

This was the second alcohol-related death at Wabash in a year. The other was a freshman in my fraternity, the Lamba Chi Alphas, who fell from the roof of the chemistry building where he clearly wasn't supposed to be on a late night and certainly not with far too much alcohol in his bloodstream.

Wabash has mourned (links here and here), temporarily suspended the fraternity, and eventually shut down the fraternity while leaving open the possibility of their return in four or so years, the last choice because of - as my class agents, Chris Carpenter and Klint Kraus, wrote...
What we do know about the incident itself is that a young man died from alcohol poisoning. The alcohol was not purchased by the house, nor was it at a house-sponsored event. The college’s investigation moved President White and Dean Raters ’85 (right) to conclude that there was a serious enough breach of the Gentleman’s Rule from the fraternity practices in recruiting, through training, in pledgeship and ritual and tradition (rough paraphrase) to determine that there was an atmosphere of irresponsible citizen ship and ungentlemanly behavior.
And now the family has begun legal proceedings, something that few people probably doubted would come to pass.

Wabash College has one single rule governing Wabash men and their behavior, the Gentleman's Rule:
The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen.
For a century or more, this was it. The one and only rule governing the Wabash man, and it is intentionally vague, purposefully without specification so that every man can help himself and his peers to define what "a gentleman and responsible citizen" would do, to raise the bar for himself and his fellow Wabash men.

Within the past couple of decades, Wabash added - likely at the legal suggestion of counsel - a definition of "the operation of the Gentleman’s Rule with respect to issues of academic honesty" (available here).

My understanding is that this was the first significant addition to the Gentleman's Rule in the history of the College, the first time when the Gentleman's Rule wasn't enough - either clear enough or thorough enough - to give guidance. Likely it was added to provide legal protection for the College and its professors who hope to turn young men into men through their time in Crawfordsville.

No matter the purpose of the first alteration to the Gentleman's Rule, I cannot imagine that the College will escape a much more significant alteration because, as the Smith family's attorney is quoted as saying...
There is no conduct policy at Wabash, there is no alcohol policy. There is a [G]entlemen's [R]ule that is no rule...
And he is both right and wrong. The Gentleman's Rule is a singular rule, applicable to everything a young man could possibly do and the sort of overarching principle to which we should all hope to ascribe.

Be good.

Do good.

Treat other well.

Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

Conduct yourself as a gentleman at all times.


There is always room for debate as to whether a certain action is what a gentleman would do, but that is part of becoming an adult. You can never have a rule that prescribed every action in every situation for every person. All we can ever do is make the best choices when we are given them, as we are nearly every moment of every day.

Our legal system - particularly the civil side of the legal system - has no taste, however, for such vagaries, and I fear that Wabash College, the brothers of Delta Tau Delta's Wabash Chapter (now defunct), and future Wabash men will pay for that.

The brothers of Delta Tau Delta made a number of poor choices, and they likely do deserve to pay in some fashion for those choices. Without a doubt, if they did not take care of their brother-to-be, if they encouraged, allowed, or participated in hazing, they acted ungentlemanly and deserve the consequences that they will be receiving.

Johnny Smith made a poor choice but one that must be acknowledged he made. He has already paid the ultimate price for that choice.

And I would be shocked if Wabash College, one of the institutions for which I care more than any other in this world, didn't end up paying a huge price as well. If they're lucky, that price will be a financial one only and will not require that they abandon one of the core tenants on which their identity if based.

I wish them well.

~One of thy loyal sons


calencoriel said...

If the Smiths wanted to send their child to a college that had a defined alcohol policy, they should have looked for one. I'm guessing if they're shelling out the kind of coin it takes to send your boy to Wabash, they looked into a couple of other places as well and CHOSE Wabash.

My guess is also that the Gentleman's Rule was something that made them favor Wabash over other institutions of higher learning, so using that as their main argument in the law suit feels kind of contradictory to me.

As an RA - back in the Stone Age when the drinking age was 19 and there was plenty of alcohol in the dorms - we were constantly warned that we could be personally named in the law suit if we didn't take care of the people on our floors and something happened. It seems to me, as you mention, the fault lies more with Mr. Smith and his potential brothers than it does with the lack of a specific policy regarding alcohol.

In a small college like Wabash, I'm sure this death is hitting the young men there hard. I hope our PHS grad who is currently there is dealing with this okay and I hope the faculty is as well. It is a tragedy - one I hope never hits close to PHS or my home. However, to place the blame on the lack of specific wording regarding alcohol is a thin my opinion.

Which is rarely given in forums like this.

achilles3 said...

In my experience there is nothing clear headed between the ears of parents who have lost a child too soon. No matter the circumstances BUT especially through alcohol.
I hope those parents all the peace in the world.
If they are thinking that being more specific about the rules may save a life than I can't blame them.

angel said...

in response to are way off base in your guessing..this young man received a scholarship to wabash..and while there could have been a choice, financially, there was none. what most people out here in cyberspace do not seem able to remember is that this young man was UNDERAGE and there is responsibility that lays wholeheartedly in the hands of the person/people whom supplied the alcohol to him, end of discussion. it past high time for those people to stand up and accept the consequences that await them, my heart and prayers go out to the family, what a tragedy.