In her first open letter to the Yale community addressing the recent shutdown of Yale Bluebook Plus, Dean Mary Miller wrote that “its developers, although acting with good intentions, used university resources without permission.” I think the Yale administration, although acting with good intentions, has demonstrated a lack of understanding of modern trends in tech culture and open data access. As a Computer Science student who also had my own bluebooking website shut down last week, I have some thoughts for the community to keep in mind as this complicated debate continues.
1. It’s not just about evaluations. Dean Miller’s latest open letter took a step forward by admitting that the University “could have been more patient” in dealing with the shutdown. But the letter also focused too narrowly on faculty evaluations, and in doing so, ignored some key issues. I know that this controversy involves more than just evaluations because of the shutdown of a course shopping website I built, Yale Classroulette.
I created Classroulette in the summer of 2012 as a way for students to flip through randomly selected grids of classes with just a press of a button. It was intended to help students broaden their horizons by finding classes they wouldn’t have actively searched for. Over the next 18 months, the site became quite popular. By the beginning of this year, 8,500 people had viewed over 1.2 million courses on Classroulette.
Last week, the administration abruptly forced me to take down Yale Classroulette, citing the exact same policy violations it invoked in the Yale Bluebook Plus case. However, my site only showed basic course information like titles, descriptions, and meeting times; it used no sensitive data like evaluations or ratings. All of the information on Classroulette was publicly available to any Internet user at Yale’s OCI website.
Why would Yale be so eager to take down a freely available resource that helped undergraduates shop for courses, and didn’t use any sensitive data like evaluations? There seems to be a larger pattern in play; the administration wants to strictly control how any course data — even just course titles — is used for shopping.
2. Yale’s tech culture is falling behind. Yale’s conduct over the past week is just one symptom of a larger systemic problem: an outdated and conservative attitude towards technology that endangers the relevance of our university in the modern world.
If you’re skeptical that a university carrying the burdens of history and bureaucracy can progressively encourage innovation, just take a look at our rival to the north. Harvard has developed an introductory computer science class, CS50, which enrolls nearly 700 Harvard students, employs a staff of 100, and has developed a worldwide brand. That class offers an API for course data, actively encouraging students to experiment with displaying the data in innovative ways. Meanwhile, Yale has failed to develop anything remotely resembling CS50, and instead has been featured in national news media and bashed on the front page of Reddit for forcibly shutting down creative student-made websites. As a high school student interested in technology, which school would you choose?
3. Less openness is not the answer. Dean Miller’s most recent letter was also disappointing because, while it tasked a committee with taking up “the question of how to respond to these developments,” it made no commitment to actually providing more open access to data. I fear that this committee will choose to largely preserve the status quo, or even worse, restrict data access as a reaction to the recent controversy.
Over the weekend, senior Sean Haufler cleverly developed the Banned Bluebook browser extension, which adds YBB+ functionality to Yale Bluebook without storing evaluation data on a server. By circumventing Yale’s data policies, the extension showed that attempts to restrict data usage are futile. Universities and governments around the world are increasingly providing transparent data access to help people make better decisions. Yale should concretely commit to providing students with even more data about courses, to better inform our decisions about how we spend our tuition money.
4. Yale can do better. If we thought of Yale as just another bureaucracy focused on enforcing obscure rules, the administration’s actions over the past week might not seem out of character. But I think we can and should expect more of our university. Yale College’s mission statement states that it seeks to develop its students “creative capacities to the fullest.” That means helping, not fighting, students who take the initiative to be creative — even when that creativity is expressed outside of the classroom.
Geoffrey Litt is a senior in Silliman College and the founder of Classroulette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.