A University of Chicago junior named Nicholas Barnes was found dead in his dorm room on Saturday afternoon. He may have been dead for a week; police found his decomposed body after other students in the International House complained of a “foul smell,” and Barnes hadn’t used his school key card since the night of Feb. 7.
Autopsy reports were inconclusive, and a toxicology report is pending—but his death wasn’t believed to be a suicide. Barnes was a Germanic studies major who studied abroad in Austria his sophomore year. He was remembered as a really smart, really excitable guy, and he wanted to do research in Germany after he graduated.
Barnes should be remembered for the mark he left on his school and for the family he tragically left behind. But since the details of his death are so sad and so befuddling, I feel like I have to ask the question everyone else is thinking: How did no one on Barnes’ hallway or in his classes notice when he disappeared for a week? Were his fellow students and professors so caught up in their own lives that it took a decomposing body for Barnes to be found?
“I don’t understand how the people that live next door, and the people who were responsible for his well-being could have not seen that he has been gone for a week,” said fellow International House resident Jordan Ginsburg.
If you read a few tweets and comments on other posts, you’ll find that quote getting ripped apart. “Why were the people next door responsible for his well being?” says one typical response.
Which I think is bullshit. You’re not responsible for the well-being of your neighbor when you’re on your own in the real world—my relationship with my neighbor more or less consists of hearing him argue with his girlfriend—but college is different. For the first time in your life, you don’t have a family acting as your support system. You’re not totally wise on all the ways of the world. You’re being asked to live with a group of strangers. And you’re told to do it on your own.
It’s a tall task. Meaning you kind of have to be your brother’s keeper, because you’re all in this new thing together.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that, if your hallmate goes missing for a couple of days, to start asking questions. The odds are you won’t have to deal with something as horrible as what happened to Barnes, but it’s the decent thing to do.