Academic Freedom | News

Yale Admits Error in Handling Student Site Takedown, Stands by Decision

Denying that it violated its students' free speech rights, Yale is standing by its decision to block a student site that offered an alternative to the university's own course planning tool. But Mary Miller, dean of Yale College, has admitted that the incident could have been handled better.

Last week, Yale began blocking a service created by students (YBB+, also known as CourseTable) that provided course listings and descriptions and a tool for helping students organize their schedules. Beginning last Monday at noon, when anyone tried accessing either site from within Yale's network, they'd receive an error warning against "malicious activity."

The institution also demanded the students pull the site down or face disciplinary action.

A firestorm erupted around the incident.

"Many of you have written to me directly or posted public comments expressing your concerns that the University's reaction to YBB+ was heavy-handed. In retrospect, I agree that we could have been more patient in asking the developers to take down information they had appropriated without permission, before taking the actions that we did," Miller wrote in an open letter to the Yale community posted Monday.

"However," she added, "I disagree that Yale violated its policies on free expression in this situation."

At issue, according to Miller, is the content of the students' site, which, significantly, included faculty evaluations, which Miller said were being used in violation of the university's appropriate use policy.

Miller wrote, "The information at the center of this controversy is the faculty evaluation, which Yale began collecting, not as a course selection tool, but as a way of helping faculty members improve their teaching. When a faculty committee decided in 2003 to collect and post these evaluations online for student use, it gave careful consideration to the format and felt strongly that numerical data would be misleading and incomplete if they were not accompanied by student comments. The tool created by YBB+ set aside the richer body of information available on the Yale website, including student comments, and focused on simple numerical ratings. In doing so, the developers violated Yale's appropriate use policy by taking and modifying data without permission, but, more importantly, they encouraged students to select courses on the basis of incomplete information. To claim that Yale's effort to ensure that students received complete information somehow violated freedom of expression turns that principle on its head."

In an earlier letter, she explained: "Free speech defines Yale's community; the people who belong to it understand that they are entitled to share their views just as they must tolerate the views of others, no matter how offensive. The right to free speech, however, does not entitle anyone to appropriate university resources. In the case of YBB+, developers were unaware that they were not only violating the appropriate use policy but also breaching the trust the faculty had put in the college to act as stewards of their teaching evaluations."

The students, Peter Xu and Harry Yu, argued that the site simply provides a better alternative for Yale's students:

"The contents of the page is in fact, a listing of courses much more usable than the official one at Yale OCI," the students wrote in a post on their site. "The page loads once, and searching for courses and viewing course descriptions happen instantly as the data is all pre-downloaded."

Further, they said, their site was in use by 40 percent of the student body at the time that Yale started blocking it. "Over 2,000 students out of a campus of 5,000 were using it as of today noon, when the Yale administration began blocking it using traffic inspection.... When the site was blocked, 2,000 students no longer had any idea of the courses they wanted to take. They had to go back to using OCI."

Miller wrote that the university's actions were in keeping with its "policies and principles," but, she wrote, "I see now that it erred in trying to compel students to have as a reference the superior set of data that the complete course evaluations provide. That effort served only to raise concerns about the proper use of network controls. In the end, students can and will decide for themselves how much effort to invest in selecting their courses."

In a twist, Miller wrote that Yale had discovered another site offering services similar to those of YBB+ but that does not violate Yale's use policy.

"Technology has moved faster than the faculty could foresee when it voted to make teaching evaluations available to students over a decade ago, and questions of who owns data are evolving before our very eyes. Just this weekend, we learned of a tool that replicates YBB+'s efforts without violating Yale's appropriate use policy, and that leapfrogs over the hardest questions before us. What we now see is that we need to review our policies and practices."

As of this writing, 687 current students have signed an online petition asking Yale to unblock CourseTable.

Yu and Xu, meanwhile, have provided a list of five recommendations for Yale and other university's in dealing with situations like this in the future. That list can be found on coursetable.com/recommendations.

Further details about the incident can be found in the Washington Post's comprehensive coverage from last week.

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