XU: Uncensor CourseTable

I love Yale. I particularly love the institution of shopping week, when I realize that my measly two credits cannot fit the number of great courses out there. I hope that every student will be able to experience the moments of magic and inspiration that I had taking Immigration Law, Global Health and Computer Networks.

Yale doesn’t seem to agree.

Yesterday, Yale blocked CourseTable, formerly known as Yale Bluebook+. The reasons cited were that we were using copyrighted Yale data, that the website was viewable by nonstudents with NetIDs and that we had averaged evaluations. Yale Bluebook had the exact same issues — except that it didn’t make it easier for students to find the best courses with evaluations — and Yale bought it. Throughout the weekend, we worked with Yale to fix these issues, but on Monday, without warning, the domain was blocked with a message claiming “malicious activity.”

We are disappointed that an institution we so love has let us down. It has let down its students, who pay $58,600 a year to attend, by preventing them from making the most of their credits. It has let down the technologists and innovators of Yale, by letting them know that making things better and easier-to-use is not appreciated. It has let down our academics, who thrive on freedom of expression and the wealth of resources on the Internet. Blocking sites that Yale disapproves of reminds us more of China’s Great Firewall than one of the world’s leading research institutions.

At every point during the process, Harry Yu and I have tried to accommodate Yale. On Tuesday of last week, we received an email from Gabriel Olszewski, the University Registrar. On Wednesday, in between packing and enjoying the last bits of break, we took a call and explained the situation fully. On Friday, we rushed back from the DMV with our business unfinished to meet the Yale administration. We advised them that if we shut down, there would be a huge disruption. We told them that we were willing to make almost all of the changes they suggested — such as removing the Yale name and preventing students from sorting courses by rating — and made almost all of them by Sunday night.

In return for our transparency, Yale was silent and opaque. They said little, while trying to censor and disappear the application from Yale’s networks without revealing it to the public — because this act of censorship would hurt Yale’s image more than Bluebook+ could. This started on Friday, when Yale began blocking the IP address of the particular server to make it look like it was merely our servers that were down.

We understand Yale’s concern. CourseTable shows average evaluation ratings very prominently, but we encourage students to read evaluations and consider their own interests when they first sign in to the website. To cooperate, we were even willing to remove the numbers from the page, and leave simply color-coded ratings. But on balance, students who choose a class rated “Excellent” over “Good” tend to learn more, attend classes more often, and enjoy the experience more. Students will also realize that these courses are popular and hard to get into (as they should be), and that they should also pursue classes that align with their specific interests, or take a risk with a new professor. Moreover, it helps us recognize the excellent teaching that Yale commends. Yale assumes that students are not smart enough to make the right choices for themselves. I believe that they are.

Yale’s administration hopes that, like after closing Commons for dinner, this will blow over soon. But there is only one solution: Yale must embrace the values it abandoned: transparency, innovation, creativity, freedom of expression, and most of all, respect for its students. Deans Marichal Gentry and Mary Miller, traditionally seen as champions of the students, have both been involved in shutting down the site. Please petition them at petition.yaleplus.com and politely let them know your views. We hope that Yale will reverse its decision — and support innovation by students, for students.

Peter Xu is a senior in Morse College and a co-founder of CourseTable. Contact him at peter.xu@yale.edu.

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