In the past week, Yale has come under fire for blocking and forcing the shutdown of CourseTable.
The site, formerly known as Yale Bluebook+, used data scraped from Yale servers to create an online course catalog that allowed users to sort classes by their average numerical evaluations.
Several days before shopping period, administrators notified seniors Peter Xu and Harry Yu, the site owners, that CourseTable was in violation of the University’s Appropriate Use Policy. Yale College Dean Mary Miller explained that free expression “entitles no one to appropriate a Yale resource and use it as their own.”
There is no question that CourseTable violated University policy. In revoking the unauthorized use of Yale property from the site owners, administrators were not at fault.
But we do question the administrators’ approach.
In the days since the University blocked CourseTable, Xu and Yu say their requests to negotiate with administrators have been met with “radio silence.” Before the site was blocked, the two attempted to revise CourseTable in accordance with administrative concerns; their revised mockups received a cursory rejection. When Xu and Yu submitted an official request for authorization to use Yale data, it was refused.
Of course, the University is under no legal obligation to license data to CourseTable. But they should have issued a statement explaining their decision to withhold the data. Since the site has existed since January 2011, its creators and 2,094 users deserved a clear explanation when Yale made the unexpected decision to incapacitate the popular student resource.
Furthermore, the University should not have blocked the website on the Yale network; demanding that the owners shut it down themselves was enough. We similarly do not see the rationale behind blocking Class Roulette, a different sort of scheduling website, earlier this week. Blocking should be a tool reserved for truly “malicious” sites, such as those that pose security concerns. We think resources used for planning course schedules hardly qualify and acknowledge that blocking websites on the Yale network could set a worrying precedent about freedom of speech.
Similarly, the administrators’ response to the site’s student owners was overblown. A dean told Xu and Yu that they would be referred to the Executive Committee if they did not erase Yale data from their servers by 5 p.m. this past Tuesday. We commend fair warnings of possible disciplinary action, but we expect administrators not to invoke the Executive Committee as a negotiation tactic.
As programming interest on campus grows — due in part to the University’s laudable support for technological activities — similar conflicts will only arise with increased frequency. Administrators can pre-empt future violations of the Appropriate Use Policy by creating a streamlined mechanism for students to request access to data. Xu and Yu say they were unaware that they had to request permission from the University and would not have even known how. Student programmers need to be made aware of the policy, and must be given clear pathways to request authorized use of data.
With delineated procedures and university point-people for student programmers, Yale can promote innovations like CourseTable while avoiding the accompanying controversies.