The Sharper Image

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// WEEKEND

When Charlie Croom ’12 picks up the phone, he is in the middle of his morning walk to work. This phone call has been hard to schedule — Croom’s job at Twitter takes up most of his time, and it took hard work to get there.

Before Croom arrived in Silicon Valley, he had acquired extensive experience with technology in college. In addition to codeveloping Yale Bluebook, an application for sorting course information that was later bought by the university, he also helped found HackYale, a series of free student-run lectures to teach other students how to program.

Croom is one of many tech entrepreneurs who emerged out of the Ivy League, but his alma mater is not a university that’s usually associated with cutting edge education in technology — especially recently. While many other elite institutions have been at the forefront of discussions about state of the art tech education, Yale has lagged behind.

“In comparison to the noise that’s coming from Harvard, Stanford, MIT a lot of people might ask, ‘When is Yale going to have a Zuckerberg or Gates?’” said Rafi Khan ’15, the current co-director of HackYale.

But, as Croom and Khan can attest, innovative Yalies do exist. They build apps and design websites, often on their own time. But at the curricular and administrative level, these students needs are not fully met.

Yale’s Computer Science department is currently oversubscribed. In a Jan. 24 interview with the News, Director of Undergraduate Studies Stanley Eisenstat pointed out that enrollment in Computer Science 223 has nearly tripled in the last three years. This surge has not been matched by a similar increase in computer science faculty.

More pressingly, students in Yale’s tech community face concerns about their freedom to design new programs in the first place. Yale’s data policies have come under fire recently, prompting calls for more openness and less University interference.

Although Croom — speaking from Silicon Valley — acknowledged some deficiencies back in New Haven, he said he believes that the administration has shown interest in trying to support innovation. It has simply lacked a clear idea of how to do so.

“Yale has shown that it wants to get involved, but I think they underestimated how quickly tech culture can move forward,” he said.

And if Yale does want to catch up, it must take a closer look at both its policies and its approach.

 

FORCE QUIT

Two weeks ago, Yale’s administration set off a firestorm when it blocked Yale Bluebook+ (YBB+), the popular course shopping website designed by brothers Peter Xu ’14 and Harry Yu ’14. Without any warning, over 1000 students suddenly found themselves locked out of the application. Classroulette, another student-developed course website, became unreachable on the same day.

Xu and Yu said that University Registrar Gabriel Olszewski had contacted them a few days before shopping period began, citing concerns about their violation of the University’s data policies. The brothers offered to revamp YBB+ to meet the administration’s demands. Instead, they woke up on Monday to find the website blocked.

“We thought they’d work with us to resolve the problems,” Yu said, reflecting back on the experience. “But they just shut it down.”

The brothers did not hear back from the registrar for several days. In the meantime, students expressed their frustration with the shutdown in various forms: Some took to Facebook, while others emailed Yale College Dean Mary Miller. The story was picked up by the Washington Post, and several days later, the New York Times.

On Jan. 17, four days after the shutdown, Miller released an open letter to the Yale community in which she acknowledged that Xu and Yu had acted with “good intentions,” but maintained that they had violated Yale’s acceptable use policy. She said that the administration and developers were working toward a “positive outcome.”

Students didn’t buy it. Over the next three days, outrage increased. Students continued to email Miller and expressed their thoughts via social media. Xu wrote an op-ed in the News, as did Geoffrey Litt ’14, the developer of Classroulette.

But, for Sean Haufler ’14, this wasn’t enough. On Jan. 19, Haufler wrote a post on his personal blog denouncing the administration’s actions and announcing that he had created a Google Chrome extension that replicated the features of YBB+ — but without violating the copyright concerns the administration had cited.

His intentions in developing this extension were twofold: first, to show that Yale did not have the right to specify the way in which students view data, and second, to demonstrate that blocking websites is futile.

“It started just as a thought experiment — what if we built a piece of software that was completely kosher on the trademark and data security end but still presented data in a way that Yale didn’t like? What would they do then?” Haufler said. “And then I said, ‘I’ll build it.’”

His “thought experiment” was shared on Facebook 376 times and tweeted 1,627 times. It also climbed to the front page of Reddit.

Miller released a second open letter on Jan. 20, again maintaining that the University had acted within its rights, but acknowledging that it could have been more patient with its actions.

“Questions of who owns data are evolving before our very eyes,” she wrote. In addition to promising the formation of a committee to further investigate the issue, she promised to “state more clearly the requirement/expectation for student software developers to consult with the University before creating applications that depend on Yale data,” and to “create an easy means for them to do so.”

What this administrative openness will look like still remains to be seen.

 

TRAVELLING BYTES

To say that the YBB+ shutdown has sparked conversation outside of our gothic walls would be an understatement.

In the past two weeks, the YBB+ story has been analyzed along several different narratives. So much so that the issue is no longer YBB+ itself, but a wider debate on student rights, data policy and all the rules in the student tech game.

On Jan. 21, the New York Times called the story a “local campus issue” that turned “into something of a civil rights cause.”

The Times also put the issue into a new, provocative light. After all, Yu and Xu had built a better version of the course catalogue; only a few years ago, a Harvard student by the name of Mark Zuckerberg had come up with the idea of a better student directory.

This and other portrayals of the YBB+ shutdown questioned the life of student tech developers at Yale, and the severity of the administration’s response.

Brad Rosen, a lawyer who teaches Computer Science at Yale College, was contacted by the Times for the YBB+ story. And, days later while sitting at a corner table at Claire’s, he explained his viewpoint in more detail.

To Rosen, this specific issue is not, as many — especially those on the outside — have perceived it, about privacy and data access broadly. This was an anomaly, a problem that emerged from an unfortunate clash between an outdated policy on course evaluations (which had not been discussed since 2002, when the faculty first agreed to publish said evaluations) and the fact that students take this information particularly (and aggressively) to heart during shopping period.

Rosen said that people misperceived the YBB+ issue as an unjust repression of data freedom in general. And that many, even those who advocate for totally open access to data, are asking for more than they would enjoy.

Rosen gesticulated with enthusiasm — he joked about students claiming to want complete openness who would be angry if Yale published all the information it collected on them. This would include when they go to the gym, which dining halls they swipe in at and even where they sleep.

The result of this hyperbole? A possibly misrepresented, overly blown-up debacle. “It’s not a sexy issue!” Rosen concluded.

Both in accordance with and in opposition to Rosen’s view, outside onlookers have painted yet another issue — one which relates Yale’s management of the YBB+ shutdown to a larger trend of bureaucratic oppression.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been a particularly vocal participant. Just a few days after the Yale Bluebook+ shutdown, FIRE released a report on free speech on college campuses. Yale fared comparatively well in the report, although it was called out for a handful of restrictive policies.

Harvey Silverglate, a trial lawyer, author and self-defined “civil liberties ‘activist’” (he hates the word but “it works”), works both with FIRE and independently to defend the rights of students.

At the start of the conversation, he said he has not directly been involved with the YBB+ issue. He did, however, speak to how the shutdown fits within student rights issues in general.

“[What happened] absolutely does not surprise me. Not because Yale is worse than other institutions,” he said. “But it is certainly at the worst end of the spectrum. It’s out there with the most controlling.”

But according to Silverglate this issue is neither specific to Yale, nor is it just about course evaluations. For him this shutdown is a small problem that points to a much larger one. According to Silverglate, this is just the beginning of a large-scale trend of increased bureaucratization and control across college campus.

All of this is makes universities more like for-profit corporations, only interested in protecting their public image. He pointed out that as soon as wider criticism arose, the university reversed its position on YBB+.

Silvergate added that he could not imagine any other university’s administration responding differently. Even Harvard, where he said the General Council has “its dirty fingers on everything.”

 

THE CYBERSPACE BATTLEFIELD

But that’s not what the folks in Cambridge think.

Zachary Hamed, an ex-student programmer, former president of Hack Harvard, and now head of design and business development at Bowery in New York City, spoke with confidence about his college’s support for tech culture.

His positive, bubbly attitude was only shaken by his “shock” at what happened at Yale. To him, in Harvard’s perfectly “open and supportive environment” YBB+, or any similar innovation, would never have been shut down.

According to Hamed, students at Harvard never have any problems with the administration because all the data they need to develop college-centric websites and apps is handed to them. Additionally, tech officers visit student incubators frequently to offer guidance and technical support.

Harvard’s tech community has a “tight bond with the administration” — but that is not the only source of the university’s success. According to Hamed, Harvard programmers directly benefit from its “really open data policy.”

“In the past four years I’ve seen Harvard establish itself as a leading destination for students interested in start-up tech entrepreneurship,” he said. “It would not make sense for them to get in the way of innovations”.

But Harry Lewis, who currently works at Harvard as a Computer Science professor, credits Harvard administrators — not just its policies — for allowing conversations about innovation.

After years of grappling with student innovation, Lewis believes the best approach comes on a case-by-case basis.

In an email he sent to the News agreeing on an interview time, Lewis attached links to a few of his blog posts. One was about the YBB+ issue itself — titled “Yale’s Power Grab.” Following it were two posts written by Lewis about his term as dean of Harvard College. The first is called “Bits and Pieces: My Real Contribution to the Birth of Facebook,” and the second “Bits and Pieces: My REAL Contribution to the Birth of Facebook.”

Yes, when Mark Zuckerberg was a Harvard student, Lewis was his dean.

Lewis denied any explicit analogy between Facebook and Yale Bluebook Plus. He did, however, speak to similar grapplings between Zuckerberg and his university’s administration.

The initial project Zuckerberg had come up with — Facemash — for instance, had to be modified under Harvard’s policy, because it granted public access to the photos of students. The final project was the product of a conversation, and mutual agreement, between Zuckerberg and the administration, Lewis said.

And these issues, Lewis went on to argue, depend most on individual reaction, not on policy. Indeed, a uniform data policy is difficult to imagine not only across institutions but also within them.

“It really depends on whose lap it falls,” he admitted. One university might send a cease and desist letter, he pointed out, while another might resist acting with such force.

And Harvard’s policy isn’t even designed to account for every eventuality. Universities, Lewis said, “have better things to do” than trying to anticipate every possible issue and being there to provide students with every possible resource. Harvard acts on an ad hoc basis just like every other institution. They just happen to have a really good track record.

 

BACKLOG ON THE YALE SERVER

With its ivy-draped walls and Gothic architecture, Yale does not look like a hub of technology. It is no Silicon Valley — and for the most part, it does not try to be. Yale is a school renowned for the humanities, more known for teaching its students how to think than how to program.

But as President Peter Salovey acknowledged in his inaugural address, technological and educational innovation have become inextricably intertwined. And if Yale wants to stay on the forefront of the latter, it must capitalize on the former.

But for Litt, the question of whether or not Yale is an environment that fosters technology is not so clear cut.

“Yes and no,” he said slowly. “Yale’s efforts at STEM recruitment are paying off. [The Center for Engineering Innovation and Design] is really awesome. But fostering a culture of openness and innovation is not easy.” He paused, and then began talking faster, bringing up the need for “an active commitment” on the part of the administration. “The first step is to avoid actively damaging the situation — but I think that’s exactly what these past few weeks have done.”

But what about before these past few weeks? Before the YBB+ scandal erupted, was Yale an environment that promoted student innovation in technology?

Again, the answer seems to be yes and no.

On one hand, opportunities are available for students to try their hand at app development. Students can apply to the popular HackYale program, which provides free lectures in programming, design and web development. Last November, Yale played host to Y-Hack, a 24-hour hackathon. Over 1000 people traveled from England, Canada and all over the United States for their chance to develop an app in 24 hours and win $20,000 in prizes.

On the other hand, the key word for both the student-led HackYale and student-led Y-Hack is “student-led.” Neither HackYale nor Y-Hack is associated with the administration, which has played a very passive role in encouraging student entrepreneurship and technology development, Litt said.

For Mike Wu ’16, that’s not necessarily a problem.

Wu, who was in charge of Y-Hack, said that his only interaction with the University in planning the event was to get permission to use school property. While he had to navigate some bureaucracy to secure that permission, he did not attribute that obstacle to an inherent problem in Yale’s attitude toward technology.

“It did take some convincing, but that’s not unique to Yale,” Wu shrugged. “With other hackathons, too, other colleges’ administrations are hesitant to have that many students sleep over or be responsible for that many students at a time.”

For Croom, the administration’s lack of active involvement was not so much a hindrance as an added incentive for creativity.

Croom and his fellow HackYale co-founders decided to start the program to teach their fellow students a different side of computer science. Seeing that Yale’s computer science department focused on the theoretical aspects of the field, they wanted to explore more practical applications, such as how to build websites.

“The University provides web space for students, but only lets you do static content,” he said. “That means you had to go out on your own to do the really dynamic stuff.”

Yalies, he continued, have a “natural desire to innovate,” which means that, whether the administration provides support or not, people will continue to push the bar higher and higher.

But while University support certainly couldn’t hurt, student developers at Yale are more interested in maintaining a hands-off policy than asking for more attention.

Litt said that students, who will always be “ahead of the curve” compared to the administration when it comes to technology, need to feel like their efforts will not go to waste.

“After all, if you want to develop a website or do anything else that’s a little bit outside of the box, but you think you’re just going to end up getting shut down by the University, then why bother applying that creativity here, you know?” Litt reflected.

Litt knows that frustration of dealing with University policies firsthand. He had rushed in five minutes late to our interview, straight out of a meeting with the registrar. The registrar had told him that there was a possibility Classroulette would be allowed again, if he put in a formal request for University data. Litt said he had no idea how long that request would take to process.

“Honestly, if I had known that it would take a data request like this in the first place, I never would’ve built Classroulette,” he said.

These restrictions aren’t stopping everyone, though, as evidenced by Haufler’s viral Chrome extension. People will continue to innovate, despite — and perhaps even because of — bureaucratic barriers. Yale’s tech culture at the moment, then, is a bit of a paradox — at once marred by words like “censorship” and “shutdown,” but also a resilient breeding ground for independent student innovation.

“It’s kind of a mixed result for Yale,” said Matt Rajcok ’16, who helped Haufler proofread his blog post and check for bugs on his extension. “People see the administration as not so encouraging of tech culture, but on the other hand, you see Sean developing this Chrome extension in 24 hours. The fact that there are people at Yale who can do that is kind of a good thing for Yale’s image.”

Rajcok and Haufler were spending a late night at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute when interviewed, their desks the only spot of activity in the otherwise empty room. When we concluded our interview, they immediately turned back to the work at hand, tinkering with some numbers on Rajcok’s laptop.

 

LOADING…

What comes next? Will real change emerge out of all this debate, or will this be another issue where student-driven outrage flares up and then quickly dies?

Many of the players involved are determined not to let that happen.

Early on, when the brothers had just received notification that there might be trouble with YBB+, Xu and Yu reached out to the Yale College Council for support.

On Jan. 27, the YCC released a set of Open Data Policy Recommendations. The report included suggestions for an administrative liaison to the developer community, rewording of certain clauses in the University’s information policy, the creation of a clear procedure to deal with violations of the information policy, a published list of what data is and is not restricted and the creation of application programming interfaces (APIs) to facilitate developer access to unrestricted data.

The YCC has a history of supporting student technology on campus — it promoted the original Yale BlueBook and has hosted multiple app challenges. According to YCC President Danny Avraham ’15, fostering a tech culture at Yale is a goal that he believes the YCC will continue to emphasize.

“We see the promotion of student entrepreneurship as part of YCC’s mission, and we are very supportive of independent efforts undertaken by students,” he said.

One element of the YCC’s recommendation — the suggestion for Yale to implement APIs — has been echoed in the tech community, both within the University and outside of it.

An API is essentially an easy way to provide data in a format that can be read by computers. Because Yale does not provide APIs, when Litt was building Classroulette, he had to translate the human-readable data that he scraped from Yale OCI into a language that could be read by a website.

Not only would an API make programming apps more convenient, it would also — and perhaps more importantly — make it easier for Yale to regulate its information.

“APIs would allow the university to expose some of its data in a structured way,” Croom said. “That way, students are allowed to use data in novel and unique ways, and in return, the University says it’s fine and can regulate it. Developing APIs would formalize a contract of explicitly stating what data is okay to use, and for the University to track who’s using it.”

Harvard provides APIs for its students to use — in fact, students enrolled in CS50, an intro-level computer science course that caters to practical application, are often encouraged to take advantage of the university’s APIs for their final projects, said Ray Kim, a Harvard student majoring in computer science.

But whether or not Yale chooses to implement APIs, or indeed any changes in data policy at all, will be a matter for ITS to decide, Miller said.

“I say — and I want to be clear here —that the decisions that ITS would make would be the University’s decisions,” Miller said. “I don’t want to get out in front of any kinds of decision making that ITS might be making.”

According to Miller’s open letter of Jan. 20, the Teaching, Learning and Advising Committee has also been tasked with examining instructor evaluations in light of the fact that technology has enabled students to take evaluation data into their own hands. ITS, along with the University registrar, will also review the University’s responses to violations of its policies.

For undergrads with a stake in Yale’s tech culture, this is the time for decisions to be made, when attention is truly on Yale innovation. How the issue of the administrative crackdown — and the larger debate about whether or not the University appropriately fosters openness — plays out will largely depend on the actions taken to resolve it. Those actions will depend on how much people continue to care.

“We’re in a bind right? This needs to be a conversation that goes on for some time and with some care — but who has time for that kind of conversation?” Khan said. “I think that’s the big tragedy. This is a hot issue for students now, but who knows what it’ll be like next week?” 

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