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.

  • student_tech

    Why even have us fill out the “excellent, very good, etc.” and “much greater, greater, etc.” sections of the evaluation if averaging them somehow violates the administration’s “intent”? Isn’t the intent to help students make informed decisions about courses they plan on taking? How does displaying the average of this survey data conflict with that goal?

  • Holly Rushmeier

    It is great to see Yale students doing a wonderful job developing software. YBB and YBB+ have been great steps forward in accessing information in a user friendly interface. We need more of this at Yale.

    There is no going back. If access and display of evaluations is restricted, students will simply develop alternative evaluation sites. Such sites could even ask things in addition to evaluation scores such as what was your grade. People could then shop by rating, workload and expected outcome. I think that would be a really dangerous line to cross.

    The only way to deal with this is to provide more information:

    1)We could have more ways to evaluate courses in addition to end of term student evaluations. Have alumni evaluations and comments 5 years after taking the course. Have teams of faculty evaluate each other’s courses and post results.

    2) We could experiment with alternative visualizations. Could we have miniature histograms? Was this course a 3 because it was bimodal (students loved it or hated it), or was it just so-so for everyone? Could there be some text summary of the comments (e.g. a wordle?)

    • chorleywood

      Wouldn’t it be a good thing if students were to develop an alternative evaluation site? The current “overall course rating” and “course work load” numerics don’t seem enough to provide nuanced guidance….

  • phantomllama

    Great piece, Peter. The worst thing about this whole farce is the fact that other websites that have not involved your evaluation comparison feature but have drawn data from the same source have received administrative support. That greatly weakens the registrar’s claim that copyright is a key issue.

    It is interesting that Mary Miller is scheduled to speak at the YPU later this term. I wonder if she will have the courage to defend this decision in debate. If not, I would question whether an institution dedicated to free speech ought give a platform to someone who seems keen to suppress it.

    — Alex Fisher.

    • pasander

      its time to revolt

      • pasander

        dean miller is leaving soon either way. the ypu debate might as well be a farewell

  • Guest

    The Yale administration had replied to certain Student Tech tickets with a bare-bones response. I believe that they are being quiet let this commotion die down – a common PR tactic. I encourage you all to sign petitions and to sign the petition at http://petition.yaleplus.com/

    “Why has the administration blocked YBB+?
    – The site was using the Yale name, course selection information, and course evaluation information without permission. Also, the design of the site focused on a few ratings never intended to be used for this purpose. Yale takes advising and course selection seriously and has given students digital resources to help them design their schedules, such as syllabi, course descriptions, and thoughtful narrative responses written by students.

    Why is the administration taking these steps now, during shopping period?
    – As above, the site was using the Yale name, course selection information and course evaluation information without permission. Also, other digital resources with this information are available and in the format that was intended.”

    • jorge_julio

      gross. Yale doesn’t take student feedback seriously and they refuse to admit it. sign the petition!

  • student_tech

    Here’s a recent techcrunch article with a brief statement by Gabriel Olszewski about why the administration blocked YBB+: http://techcrunch.com/2014/01/16/yale-university-censors-popular-course-evaluation-site/

    Snippet: “There was a design component used to present data in a way that was
    never intended, as voted by the faculty” Olszewski, who declined to
    specify the exact feature, said in a phone interview.

    Just absurd that the YBB+ violated some adminstrative “intent”. The intent should be to help students pick courses, nothing more. Not sure what the faculty voted on, but if YBB+ somehow conflicted with their vote, then they should seriously reconsider their stance.

    And this isn’t even bringing in the fact that students never had any input on a vote that directly and profoundly impacts their experience here. This speaks to a larger problem where the administration and faculty make decisions for the students without any of their input.

    • guest1420

      Mostly the administration. I have a feeling Olszewski is misrepresenting the “faculty vote.”

    • Peter Xu

      We have asked for, but not yet received a copy of the often-mentioned faculty vote’s text.

  • meep15