Yale’s administration ignited controversy two weeks ago by blocking the Yale BlueBook+ website, developed by seniors Peter Xu and Harry Yu, for displaying Yale-owned course-evaluation data in an unauthorized fashion. The University later conceded that Banned Bluebook, a Google Chrome plug-in subsequently developed by senior Sean Haufler, provides the same functionality without violating applicable rules.
On January 20, Yale College Dean Mary Miller referred to Haufler’s Banned Bluebook as “a tool that replicates YBB+’s efforts without violating Yale’s appropriate-use policy and that leapfrogs over the hardest questions before us.” Haufler’s tool indeed exemplifies the multifaceted creativity of students — in this case, the ability to write great code while tiptoeing around intellectual-property restrictions.
More importantly, however, this incident highlights critical questions that Yale must answer if it is to maintain its global-leadership position in an era in which computers and networks play fundamental and indispensible roles in intellectual life. We must answer: What restrictions belong in appropriate-use policies, and how can Yale incorporate computational thinking into its commitment to creativity and intellectual freedom?
Like any organization, Yale must protect the many valuable data sets it owns from misuse, such as unauthorized commercial distribution or exploitation. Appropriate-use policies should specify who may access the data and for what purposes. For example, policies specifying which parties may use data commercially or redistribute them publicly, under what conditions, are standard and non-controversial.
However, Xu and Yu’s YBB+ violated a more fine-grained and intellectually invasive policy, one governing not how university-owned data may be used but how those data may be displayed. Computers are tools that humans invented to help us think, and restricting how data may be displayed to authorized users effectively restricts the way students may use tools to think about data to which they have legitimate access. Fine-grained policies that constrain computational thinking by authorized users are antithetical to creativity and freedom of thought, and they have no place in an institution like Yale.
It might make sense to impose such restrictions on public displays. If an authorized user wished to publish a book or pamphlet displaying university data sets, Yale might reasonably insist that those displays take a particular form. However, the University should not to try to control the way data are displayed for private use by authorized users. If a student were to use pencil and paper to arrange course-evaluation data in a preferred manner while choosing courses, no one would dream of objecting; nor would anyone object if the student shared with his fellow students the values he calculated or bar charts he drew. Why should using a computer program to display course-evaluation data in one’s preferred manner, and sharing that program with fellow students, be controversial if analogous pencil-and-paper actions are not?
In Computer Science, this principle is called “separating policy from mechanism.” The policy, appropriately regulated by the data owner, specifies who may use the data and for what purpose — for example, that Yale students may use Yale’s course-evaluation data for course selection. The mechanism determines how data are used under that policy, such as using pencil-and-paper notes or a computer program. Intellectual freedom demands that the mechanism for data use be left up to authorized users.
The second question raised last week is how we can encourage Yale students to develop great software and share it with each other while respecting intellectual-property rights as well as privacy and other social values that are often trampled in rapidly changing technological environments. More generally, how can we encourage today’s students to think computationally, just as Yale students have always thought verbally, numerically and artistically? How can we encourage them to use computers and networks every bit as creatively as Yale students have always used pens, cameras, paint brushes, musical instruments and other communication media? Designing appropriate-use policies to permit computational thinking is a start, but to maintain global leadership Yale must also proactively encourage and foster computational thinking.
Some of our Computer Science colleagues are worried that “bad PR” from this incident portrays Yale as technologically backward. In contrast, we think the media coverage made clear that Yale students are great programmers, creative thinkers and bold actors. Of course, the incident also exposed the fact that the administration occasionally has trouble coping with bold action by students, particularly when that action involves computers. Yale is hardly the only venerable university of which that can be said, however. University administrations can and do adapt, and we are confident that Yale’s will become comfortable with computers — especially if alumni like Haufler, Xu and Yu rock the tech world, reap great intellectual and financial rewards in the process and share some of their wisdom and riches with their alma mater.
Joan Feigenbaum is the Grace Murray Hopper Professor of Computer Science. Bryan Ford is an assistant professor of computer science.