With news of the YBB+ closure making it to the pages of the Washington Post and beyond, and an online petition opposing the shutdown gathering nearly 700 signatures, Dean of Yale College Mary Miller has decided to go public on the issue, drafting an open letter to the Yale community which will soon be posted on the Dean’s Office website.

In the letter, Miller grants that although the developers of YBB+ acted with “good intentions” and that the site’s closure came at a bad time, YBB+’s violated Yale’s acceptable use policy. Moreover, while Miller acknowledges the claims that blocking the site comes at a cost to freedom of speech, she asserts that the right to free speech does not entitle the illegitimate use of University resources.

Miller also suggests that the University objected to the manner in which YBB+ quantified instructor evaluations, decoupling the quantitative parts of a teacher evaluation with their written counterparts. When teacher evaluations were made available to student, administrators and faculty members had reached an understanding that the evaluations would be displayed holistically, Miller writes, adding that YBB+ undercut that agreement.

The full text of the letter is below:

 

January 17, 2014

To the Yale Community:

This past week, students in Yale College lost access to YBB+ because its developers, although acting with good intentions, used university resources without permission and violated the acceptable use policy that applies to all members of the Yale community. The timing for its users could not have been worse: over 1,000 of them had uploaded worksheets during the course selection period and relied on those worksheets to design their course schedules. And the means for shutting down the site immediately — by blocking it — led to charges that the university was suppressing free speech.

Free speech defines Yale’s community; the people who belong to it understand that they are entitled to share their views just as they must tolerate the views of others, no matter how offensive. The right to free speech, however, does not entitle anyone to appropriate university resources. In the case of YBB+, developers were unaware that they were not only violating the appropriate use policy but also breaching the trust the faculty had put in the college to act as stewards of their teaching evaluations. Those evaluations, whose primary purpose is to inform instructors how to improve their teaching, became available to students only in recent years and with the understanding that the information they made available to students would appear only as it currently appears on Yale’s sites — in its entirety.

Members of the YCDO and the University Registrar met this week with the developers, and to good end: the developers learned more about the underlying problems with using data without permission, the importance of communicating in advance with the university on projects that require approval and cooperation, and some of the existing mechanisms for collaborating with the university, among them the Yale College Council. Administrators, for their part, heard more about the demand for better tools and guidelines for the growing number of student developers, the need for a better approach to students who violate the acceptable use policy — in most cases unwittingly — and the value students place on information contained in teaching evaluations. All parties agreed to work toward a positive outcome, and they remain in conversation with each other to that end.

Mary Miller

Dean of Yale College

Sterling Professor of History of Art

  • Guest

    It’s terrible yet unsurprising that it takes media coverage from “the Washington Post and beyond” to get the administration to shed its nontransparency and silence and finally explain their actions.

  • Guest

    “breaching the trust the faculty had put in the college to act as stewards of their teaching evaluations”

    For the faculty or administration to implicitly claim ownership of student written reviews strikes me as deeply problematic. When I write a review, I do so because I believe it will be a helpful reference for other students, and I hope they use it with whatever tools they find most helpful. If the administration does not intend for my reviews to help students, the clear solution is to instead post it on an independent review site that does have this goal in mind — and if such a site does not exist, to create one.

    Professors’ response to reviews should not be to control how they are displayed, but to consider how to make their courses a better student experience.

    • Grumpy

      “Professors’ response to reviews should not be to control how they are displayed, but to consider how to make their courses a better student experience.”

      That’s precisely how they use the reviews, to allow professors to improve their courses to better the student experience. It gives faculty a chance to experiment with different teaching methods, depth, and material, without fear of a bad “rating”. The student evaluations play a role in the tenure process as well, and so whatever students write aren’t simply disregarded. After living with one for some time, being with my wife since her master’s degree, I’ve learned that professors are never short of evaluations, be it through peer reviews in conferences and journals, constant competition for very few and far between faculty jobs, competition among colleagues for that tenure position, or even the blank expressions of students they see each week when the course material might not be hitting home.

      I understand that you might think this is limiting access and speech but this particular data set was never collected to “rate my prof” as was explained in the letter. There *are* sites out their that do exactly as that and if that was what you are looking for, there’s nothing to stop you from using them. If CourseTable had appropriated data from those sites, I’m pretty sure they would have been shut down just as hard.

      Don’t get me wrong. There were many questionable decisions made during this fiasco (this is why a PR department exists and why decision makers should stop and listen to them), but I don’t think limiting the student evaluations to their intended usage was one of them.

      * I think this is one of the few cases where you can blame the messenger and not the message.

  • Guest

    Number of cs majors:
    Class of 2015: ~50
    Class of 2016: ~100
    Class of 2017: ~120
    Class of 2018: 6

  • undergrad_14

    What a pathetic statement. Nothing short of an apology is appropriate here.

  • tribe

    “The timing for its users could not have been worse”…as if the timing weren’t Dean Miller’s decision?

  • amenhotep

    I’ve never used CourseTable. In its first incarnations (don’t know about the later ones), it did feel pretty reductive. That said, Miller’s statement leaves a lot to be desired, in tone and content.

    “This past week, students in Yale College lost access to YBB+.”
    Why this vague construction, instead of clearly designating the agency that shut down the website? Take responsibility and apologize.

    “The timing for its users could not have been worse.”
    And Yale was completely responsible for that timing: the website has been around for a long time, and they could have acted at any point. Take responsibility and apologize.

    “In the case of YBB+, developers were unaware that they were not only
    violating the appropriate use policy but also breaching the trust the
    faculty had put in the college to act as stewards of their teaching
    evaluations.”
    This is super-grating. The YBB+ developers were in no position to “breach the trust the faculty had put in the college,” as the trust had been put in… the college. Yale, not the developers, breached the faculty’s trust, if anybody did, by failing to communicate the agreement in any way to members of the Yale community outside faculty and administrators. Nobody, nobody, nobody was aware that there was any such agreement. Take responsibility and apologize.

    “Those evaluations, whose primary purpose is to inform instructors how to
    improve their teaching, became available to students only in recent
    years and with the understanding that the information they made
    available to students would appear only as it currently appears on
    Yale’s sites — in its entirety.”
    I sympathize with the idea that course evaluation data should be handled delicately, but it is simply not true that OCS presents the information in its entirety. The data is split into quantitative and qualitative with no indication of which qualitative evaluation corresponds to an individual student’s quantitative evaluation. This is probably the way it should be–it makes it harder, I guess, for teachers to identify an individual student’s quantitative evaluation by their prose–and again I don’t think that the way YBB presented the data was ideal. But Miller’s statement is misleading, and moreover fails to acknowledge the very-relevant shortcomings of OCS. Take responsibility for having a crappy website, and apologize.

    I feel a little sorry for the administration, which clearly had no idea that this would attract the amount of attention that it did, and is still a little dazed from the episode. But this statement falls short.

  • phantomllama

    ” The timing for its users could not have been worse.”

    Then explain the timing. Miller almost sounds smug.

    “the developers learned more….Administrators, for their part, heard more.”

    The ‘learned/heard’ dichotomy is telling.

  • yaliewho
  • Scott R.

    Wow, what a joke of a dean. She should be fired. Instead of embracing these students as technological innovators who were helping the entire college community, and instead of figuring out a way that Yale could employ these students’ brilliance to help transform the college experience, the dean shuts them down because she’s afraid of how incompetent her administration looks after these students did a much enter job than they’ve ever done.

  • Sorosspelledbackwards

    Lux et veritas, aut caligo et mendacium? The real issue here is that some teachers cannot teach (bad enough) and are immune to improvement (worse, by far).