Monday, January 14, 2013

MIT Does It Right

Yesterday I asked, in the context of the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz, "what was MIT's rationale for going after Swartz for exactly the kind of hack at which the Institute has traditionally winked?"

Hallelujah. MIT has asked itself the same question, and has chosen to answer it, not by referring the matter to its lawyers and communications professionals for an analysis of the risks and rewards of various public postures, but by asking a beloved, student-friendly, information-libertarian professor to investigate and report back. The Institute could not have picked a better person for the inquiry than Hal Abelson, co-author with me of Blown to Bits. First, the job will be done impartially and correctly, without undue influence from any side; second, it will be done in a way that is wise and sensitive to the realities of student culture; and third, Abelson is such an MIT mensch that the community will believe whatever is reported.

MIT has in recent years been a bit schizophrenic about how it treats its young. The very idea of a hack is an MIT invention. Putting stuff on top of the dome is probably not officially sanctioned, though it is fully expected. MIT has generally been pretty indulgent of weird people, entirely sensible given the number of eccentric, socially impaired geniuses that have gone through the place as students or faculty.

Which is why many at MIT were horrified when MIT was less than supportive of Star Simpson a few years ago when she was arrested at Logan Airport on bomb hoax charges because she was wearing flashing circuit boards. (She's an electrical engineer and an artist.) Aaron Swartz was not an MIT student, but he was plainly of the MIT culture, and was deeply admired by many at the Institute for his commitment to information freedom. I can think of no reason for MIT to support his harsh prosecution that would have served the best interests of either MIT students, or Swartz, or the Institute's basic mission. 

So good for MIT for asking itself whose interests were being served when it allied itself with the federal prosecutors in the Swartz case, and who made that decision.

I would venture to say that the New, run-like-a-business Harvard would never handle a similar situation with such existential soul-searching. Let's look at the Gov 1310 "cheating" case. Rather than just quoting myself (Harvard, Know Thyself), I'll quote an insightful blog post by Forbes contributor Richard Levick:
University policy demands total confidentiality. While Harvard naturally declined to reveal names, we should certainly not be reading that Harvard officials called it the biggest such probe in living memory.” We should not know how many students are involved, nor how a teaching assistant was disturbed by what he read in the suspicious exams, nor what steps the university will take to spread the gospel of academic integrity – which assumes the as-yet unproven point that those steps are at all necessary in light of this inquiry.
It’s a very fair guess that, after a year of dutiful silence, Harvard was contacted by the media and decided to go proactive. Get ahead of the story. Don’t wait for reporters to tell it for you. Show how transparent you are. To be sure, corporations and institutions are well-advised to consider just such practices in the shadow of an impending crisis.
But absent sound judgment regarding the particulars of each situation, these bromides are just that – bromides, ill-advised and rather dangerous. Lawyers don’t typically comment on pending litigation, and for good reason. Boards don’t reveal the details of their investigations when CEOs are under fire, and for good reason.
In compliance with Harvard’s own policy, a brief statement, with only minimal confirmation (if any) that an investigation is being speedily conducted, would have sufficed.
Harvard then inexplicably strung the cases out for months longer than students were originally told to expect. Students were required to withdraw in December for cheating alleged to have occurred in May, even though they were originally told the could expect a decision in September. Some of them paid tens of thousands of dollars in fall term tuition, which is not being reimbursed. The extended delay, and the students' abrupt departure from campus late in the term, has led to many being identified, with unjustified and irreparable harm to their reputation.

My first reaction when I heard that more than a hundred students were being charged with cheating in one course was, "there is something wrong with the course." That only became clearer when it turned out that there was not a "cheating ring," but a wide variety of different forms of collaboration involving clusters that had no communication with one other.

Harvard needs to look not at student culture but at the faculty culture that created this mess. I have heard not a word to suggest it has any intention of doing so. I don't doubt that the particular professor has felt some blowback. But the fault cannot be just his, since he apparently had been setting low expectations for his students for several years, and nobody in the department or in the university administration cared enough to stop him. If they didn't notice something that hundreds of students knew, that in itself is a cultural problem. It would mean, among other things, that nobody is reading all those student evaluations we mandate must take place for every course.

I expect that the handling of the case will continue to be under the direction of Harvard's lawyers and communications experts, who will discourage any form of public introspection that would suggest, on the eve of a fund drive kick-off, the existence of huge holes in the university's masthead claim that "Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research."

Harvard needs to be as honest with itself as MIT is being. In some ways the tragedies are disproportionate; the Gov 1310 mess has cost no lives that I know of, though I understand that some students were under severe psychological stress, lost weight, and so on. On the other hand, it seems that many dozens will have their lives permanently altered by the experience and the black mark that goes with it on their transcript.

From my conversations with families and students involved in the Gov 1310 case, what strikes me is how un-family-like they feel their interactions with the university have been. Harvard's disciplinary process is meant to be paternalistic; to be sure parents must sometime discipline their children while still loving them. There is not much sense out there among the Gov 1310 students I know that Harvard loves them.

Good for MIT for recognizing that its reputation will, in the long run, be enhanced if it tries to figure out if and where it went wrong with Aaron Swartz, and that the best way to do that, in a family setting, is to ask a wise uncle to figure it out and report to the community. I wish Harvard had the same attitude.

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