From The Faculty Chair
This is my first Faculty Newsletter column as Chair of the Faculty. Like my predecessors, I hope to use the column as a way to communicate with faculty about ongoing issues of concern to you as well as the broader MIT community, and to invite feedback to the faculty officers and committees of the faculty.
I’m fortunate to be working with two other faculty officers, elected in May of this year. Prof. John Belcher is the new Associate Chair of the Faculty. John is the Class of '22 Professor of Physics and a former MacVicar Fellow, with research interests in astrophysics. He has led several innovations in the teaching of physics at MIT, including the development of the Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) format for teaching 8.02. His expertise in the technology of learning is especially valuable at this time, as the MITx and edX initiatives continue to grow in size and influence. Prof. Susan Silbey is the new Secretary of the Faculty. She is Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology and Anthropology; Professor of Behavioral and Policy Sciences (Sloan School of Management); and head of Anthropology. With research interests in governance, regulatory, and audit processes in complex organizations, she brings an interesting perspective to MIT governance that I’ve found enlightening and useful.
All of the faculty officers are available for discussions with faculty. We welcome e-mail, phone calls, or face-to-face meetings. The officers can be reached collectively at email@example.com.
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In January of this year, our community was shocked and saddened by the suicide of Aaron Swartz. Aaron was a brilliant young programmer and activist who helped develop, while still a teenager, Internet infrastructure that many of us now take for granted, such as RSS. Aaron’s death came two years after his arrest and subsequent prosecution on charges related to his use of the MIT computer network to download thousands of academic articles from the JSTOR digital depository. Aaron’s friends and supporters believe that Aaron’s prosecution was unjust. As the case continued, MIT received substantial scrutiny for its role in the matter.
On January 22, President Reif charged Prof. Hal Abelson of EECS to review MIT’s involvement in the Swartz matter. Specifically, the review was to (1) describe MIT’s actions and decisions during the period beginning when MIT first became aware of unusual JSTOR-related activity on its network by a then-unidentified person, until the death of Aaron Swartz on January 11, 2013, (2) review the context of these decisions and the options that MIT considered, and (3) identify the issues that warrant further analysis in order to learn from these events. The review panel consisted of Prof. Abelson, Institute Professor Emeritus Peter Diamond, and Andrew Grosso, an attorney and former Assistant U.S. Attorney. Their report was released on July 30. I would like to offer my thanks and appreciation on behalf of the faculty to Profs. Abelson and Diamond and Mr. Grosso for the thorough and thoughtful report that they produced.
Concurrent with the release of the report, President Reif sent a letter to the community, thanking the review committee, and beginning a process through which the MIT community will try to address the questions raised by the report, specifically the eight questions posed in Part V of the report. Among other actions, President Reif charged Provost Chris Kaiser and me “to design a process of community engagement that will allow students, alumni, faculty, staff and MIT Corporation members to explore these subjects together this fall and shape the best course for MIT.” As of the writing of this column in mid-August, the Provost and I are still working on the form of that engagement. However, as a first step, we have launched a forum, Swartz-review.mit.edu, to gather input from the MIT community. (The URL for the site is the same as the one that was used by the review committee. Issues raised by the community provided important direction for the panel during the first part of the review.) The site can be viewed by anyone, but commenting is restricted to members of the MIT community. Current members of the community can log in with a valid Kerberos username and password or MIT network certificate. Alumni can log in using their Infinite Connection username and password. The site is organized around the eight questions posed in Part V of the report.
Prior to the release of the review committee findings, MIT, as an institution, understandably made few statements about the facts surrounding the Swartz case. My sense is that both the lack of information and the desire to see the results of the review before forming opinions may have muted discussion of the matter during that time. Now that the review is available, I urge you to read it and provide feedback on the Website as part of our community discussion on issues surrounding open access, intellectual property, responsibility, leadership, policy, and ethics.
President Reif noted in his letter that he has heard from many in our community who believe that MIT’s actions were proper and justified; he also noted that others believe that MIT should have been more active in the case. I also have heard a range of thoughtful perspectives, both on the actions that were taken and how our ethical commitments might be tested in the future. I look forward to hearing more from the faculty and the broader community on these important questions. On this or any other topic, we look forward to your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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