MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVI No. 4
March / April 2014
The Importance and Value
of Our Graduate Students
MIT "Town Gown Report"
to the City of Cambridge
One Investment Worth Making:
Graduate Student Housing
Analyzing the Draft Report by the
Graduate Student Housing Working Group
Executive Summary of the Draft Report to the Provost of the Graduate Student Housing Working Group
Observations from the Swartz Report
Community Engagement Process
Faculty Need a Campus Planning Committee as a Standing Committee
The Value of a Faculty Campus
Planning Committee
New Enrollment Tools to be Piloted
in CI-H/HW Subjects
Women as a Percentage of Total Undergraduates, Graduate Students, and Faculty: Academic Years 1901-2014
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

Observations from the Swartz Report
Community Engagement Process

Steven Hall, Chris Kaiser

Note: This issue’s column is jointly authored by Chair of the Faculty Steven Hall and former Provost Chris Kaiser.

In July 2013, a review panel led by Prof. Hal Abelson issued its report to President Reif on MIT’s involvement in the Aaron Swartz case. In his letter sharing the report with the MIT community, President Reif noted that “the report’s larger questions deserve the collective wisdom of the MIT community” and charged us in our roles as Chair of the Faculty and Provost “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.”

Our process, which began in August and continued through late February, sought engagement with the community through three primary channels: a Website that allowed members of the MIT community to offer their thoughts on the eight questions presented in the report, informal outreach, and a series of group discussions with different segments of the MIT community. The latter included a meeting of the Faculty Policy Committee in October, and a series of four forums on Hacking, Ethics, and Community in December, January, and February. In addition, the report of the review panel was presented by Prof. Abelson at the September Institute Faculty Meeting.

The community forums were designed to collect the best ideas and observations from the community. We held forums for four separate cohorts (faculty, undergraduate students, graduate students, and staff).

We encouraged respectful debate and invited the community to focus on areas that could lead to specific, constructive actions. In keeping with President Reif’s charge to us to consider the report’s larger themes, we focused the discussion around the following three questions:

  • What lessons can we draw for MIT’s hacker culture from the Aaron Swartz case?
  • Should an MIT education address the personal ethics and legal obligations of technology empowerment?
  •  What are the moral, ethical, and legal challenges that face MIT and the broader community in our increasingly technological and connected society?

Although these three questions formed the focal point of the discussion, we invited participants to discuss any aspect of the report of interest or concern to them, and the discussions were indeed wide-ranging, spanning MIT’s mission, opportunities for community learning, and policy concerns.

The faculty, graduate, and undergraduate forums were lightly attended, with roughly 22, 15, and 10 attendees, respectively. The staff forum had greater attendance, with 35 attendees. Those who participated showed considerable thought, passion for the issues, and a sincere impulse to seek ways to make MIT a better place. Each of the four forums was different, but collectively we found the discussions helped us form a clear picture of the issues that people were concerned about and views they wanted to bring forward. We estimated 30-50% of attendees at the forums had read the report, and we noted strong local pockets of interest among students in EECS and East Campus, faculty in Comparative Media Studies and STS, and staff in the Media Lab and Libraries. We also heard privately from quite a few members of the community who generally supported MIT’s actions in the Swartz case, but shied away from participating in what they expected to be emotionally charged discussions.

Because we asked participants in forums to discuss broad principles that would help inform MIT’s future actions, most of the discussion was not specific to the Aaron Swartz case, but rather to the issues raised by the review panel report. Some of the key themes we heard are discussed below.

Risky business. In several discussions, participants observed a growing risk aversion to hacking in our student culture. Some further expressed concern that MIT as a whole is becoming more risk-averse, and that this risk aversion could undermine our proud history of innovation in research. In several discussions, we heard that MIT is known for tolerating risk, but doesn’t seem to have clear and cohesive approaches for managing risk. Others thought that MIT’s leadership should publicly articulate the Institute’s values and risk management policies.

We note that in these discussions, the ideas of risk-taking in MIT’s research enterprise readily became conflated with risk-taking in personal behavior. In research, we expect faculty to work at the boundaries of their fields on important and challenging problems. Such research always runs the risk of failure, but we encourage and celebrate researchers who take big risks to “push the boundary” of science and technology. On the other hand, “pushing the boundaries” in personal behavior puts the individual at risk of running afoul of civil or criminal laws and can jeopardize the safety of one’s self and others. As the discussions about risk move forward, it will be important to maintain clear distinctions between these two very different types of risk-taking activities.

A place for ethics. Faculty, staff, and students consistently agreed that MIT as an educational institution has a responsibility to help students understand the ethical implications of the work that they do. On the other hand, there was no enthusiasm for a mandatory ethics curriculum imposed in a top-down fashion. We heard from both faculty and students examples of faculty incorporating big-picture ethical conversations into their existing subjects. We see an opportunity for the administration and faculty leadership to encourage faculty impulses along these lines and to seek to provide the appropriate contexts.

Faculty and staff placed equal importance on communicating MIT values outside the classroom. From student life to UROPs, some suggest that there is more we should be doing to teach not just personal rights, but also encourage reflection on personal responsibility. While not a unanimously held view, we heard some support for finding ways to institutionalize “teachable moments,” or community conversations on difficult topics.

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Everything’s allowed … until you’re caught. Mixed messages on hacking (in the MIT sense of a harmless, creative practical joke) have caused concern for faculty, staff, and students.

There is a sense that MIT officially sanctions and celebrates hacks, for example, by featuring hacks on the MIT Website and admissions tours, but also may punish hackers who are caught in the act of trespassing or some other relatively minor infraction. Students, in particular, described the challenge of not knowing where the boundaries are, and a sense that the consequences of overstepping those boundaries could be harsh.

Some perceive an unfair bargain in which students bear the risks, but the Institute reaps the benefits. While we heard some ideas on ways to facilitate “safe” hacking (e.g., training classes for accessing the Great Dome) or make boundaries clearer, we’re also aware that part of the appeal of hacking is to do something that normally is not condoned.

Support for those in trouble. We heard that MIT needs to support individuals from our community when they push against certain boundaries in service of research or other kinds of efforts that align with MIT values. Not surprisingly, students would like to have a sense that the first institutional response will always be to defend students. In our forums, we challenged the audience to enunciate principles that would help us determine who is a member of our community, under what circumstances MIT should provide institutional support for community members in legal difficulty, and what sort of support would be appropriate. Attendees at our forums generally wanted a more inclusive definition of membership in our community, but had difficulty in enunciating general principles for deciding under what circumstances MIT should offer support.

In both student forums, mental health came up as an example of an area in which MIT could do more to support students. Graduate students pointed to the isolation that can stem from legal difficulties. A perception widely held by undergraduates is that MIT makes decisions with respect to mental health difficulties based on what is best for MIT, rather than what is best for the student. The undergraduates expressed concerns that students on medical leave for mental health reasons are generally not allowed to be on campus, and are thus cut off from their community, which they view as a source of support. Students cited MIT’s response to mental health issues as supporting the idea that MIT’s first instinct is to distance itself from students who might be a liability for the Institute.

Doing the right thing, quietly. In talking with students especially about MIT’s response to hacking (in the MIT sense), students brought up cases that in their view were handled poorly, but which occurred years ago, long before they came to MIT. One prominent case from 2006 involved three students who faced felony breaking and entering charges for sneaking into the MIT Faculty Club. Although the charges were ultimately dropped by Middlesex County prosecutors at the urging of MIT police and administrators, the student collective memory still recalls that the charges were first filed by MIT police. (The initial decision to bring charges may have been influenced by prior thefts of items from the Faculty Club.) Not surprisingly, students would like all hacking cases heard before the Committee on Discipline rather than in the criminal justice system.
There is an information asymmetry that affects community perception of difficult cases such as the 2006 Faculty Club incident. Every day, faculty, staff, and members of the administration quietly resolve or overlook small infractions, and take others to the Committee on Discipline (CoD). In many cases before the CoD, students accept responsibility for their actions without a hearing, and appropriate (and usually fairly modest) sanctions are imposed. But the community rarely hears about such cases, because they are handled confidentially. As a result, the narrative can easily be shaped by negative examples, and surprising takeaway conclusions can become accepted lore. This information asymmetry creates a perception that MIT often fails to support students in trouble.

More legal resources. Especially among graduate student and staff researchers, we heard that laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) can pose risks to individuals pursuing legitimate academic and extracurricular activities. There were a number of suggestions on how to better equip our community to navigate the current legal environment. This year, the IAP subject Coders, Know Your Rights: A Practical Introduction to Technology and the Law, was offered in the Media Lab, which covered legal issues around software coding, including issues in copyright law, the CFAA, and data privacy. Students suggested the expansion of formal curricular offerings in this area. (We note that the Anthropology Section is collaborating with Suffolk University to develop an IAP offering on intellectual property law.)

Also suggested were regular or on-demand briefings from the Office of the General Counsel on legal risks associated with computing activities, and Web resources on the CFAA and other potential legal risks.

It’s clear to us that there is an unmet demand for legal information, especially among students and researchers in the Media Lab and EECS. Similarly, students say there is a need for a path for questions and consultations related to ethics in the digital sphere, similar to that available through the Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects (COUHES) for research involving human subjects. Finally, graduate students suggested that MIT create an administrative position of legal triage advisor to help students in need of legal advice. In parallel to our engagement process, President Reif has asked the Provost, Chancellor, and General Counsel to develop a proposal for creating a resource for student inventors and entrepreneurs to obtain independent legal advice.

What does it mean to be a leader? Finally, many in our community expressed pride in MIT’s reputation as a leader in technology and innovation, but were disappointed that MIT did not make a statement regarding the prosecution of Aaron Swartz specifically, and more broadly on the merits (or lack thereof) of the CFAA. They believe that it is incumbent upon MIT to exercise its leadership by taking a public stance on issues of national importance. No doubt, this desire to have highly visible statements of public import emanating from MIT comes from a widely shared aspiration for MIT to exercise every opportunity to serve the public good. But we heard from many others who believe that it would have been inappropriate for MIT to have made a statement in the Swartz case.

Historically, MIT has rarely taken an institutional position on public issues that lie outside its research and educational missions, and for good reasons. But faculty can and should influence public debate on other matters of national importance. The expertise individual faculty bring to the debate is more powerful than necessarily conservative and muted expressions from the administration. Our faculty have helped shape the national debate in areas such as global warming, nuclear disarmament, and economic policy, to name just a few. No doubt our faculty and others in the MIT community with influential voices have a role to play in the national debate over computer security and privacy as well.

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