At MIT, Neutrality isn’t Neutral

Following the suicide of Aaron Swartz, MIT’s new president, L. Rafael Reif, whose unspoken (but barely hidden) goal is to wipe the place clean of its organic culture so that incoming students can pop their Izod collars just like they would have done if they went to Exeter, appointed Course 6 (that’s MIT-speak for computer science) professor Hal Abelson to conduct an investigation to determine whether MIT was complicit in the factors that drove Swartz to his end.

Abelson was picked as an honest broker, a man who shared Swartz’s vision of the internet, at least to some extent. Of course, he was still a prof and received a paycheck that bore the Institute’s name, but there was faith in the culture of honesty and openness that would empower him to be forthright in his assessment.  And it appears he was, if not perhaps a bit too charitable in his language of explaining.

The report was long, involved and thorough, but ultimately reached an overarching conclusion: That Reif’s MIT took a position of “neutrality” toward the prosecution of Aaron Swartz. From The Tech:

The report found that MIT did not purposefully “call in the feds,” made no public statements for or against the government’s prosecution, sought no punishment for Swartz, and responded similarly, for the most part, to requests from the prosecution and the defense for documents and witnesses. The report’s authors acknowledged caveats to this notion of neutrality, but emphasized that MIT kept a “hands-off attitude.”

While others addressed the report when it came out, I awaited the take from inside MIT. It’s one of those places where the quirks of internal culture provided a different view than appeared to outsiders. Indeed, it was the quirk of its open culture, that anybody on the MIT campus can access pretty much anything at will, that made it the perfect place for Swartz to free the JSTOR content.

The report, and the inside take of those who understood it in terms of what MIT was thought to be, did not mean “neutrality” to be a good thing.

Something more should be expected from a leader in information technology and open access when it meets a “ruinous collision of hacker ethics, open-source ideals, questionable laws, and aggressive prosecutions,” the report suggested in its conclusion.

And yet, rather than understand that the report condemned the administration’s handling of the matter as “neutral,” Reif read it as vindication of his handling of MIT’s role in the prosecution.

But Reif saw the report as affirming MIT’s actions to be “reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith.” Those at MIT involved in the case “served MIT with outstanding professionalism,” he wrote in a statement.

In a world dedicated to exploring new flavors that no one had ever tasted before, Reif offered white bread and was proud of it.  It flew in the face of everything MIT ever stood for, ever meant, and yet he failed to comprehend that the President of one of the quirkiest kitchens on earth was serving a Big Mac, but without even the special sauce.

While Reif took pride in his “notion of neutrality,” as if that absolved MIT from any contributory role in the prosecution of Swart, he missed the point of where, along the spectrum of involvement in a prosecution, his policy fell. While Reif’s MIT may not have been actively pursuing a government prosecution of Swartz, serving as handmaiden to the United States Attorney and shunning the defense (though Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman disagrees, calling the report a “whitewash”), he similarly did nothing to prevent the prosecution.

No one told the United States Attorney that MIT wasn’t outraged, wasn’t harmed, saw no purpose in pursuing a prosecution or incarcerating Swartz. When the government spoke harsh words to the defense on MIT’s behalf, Reif didn’t correct the government. When the government demanded prison as the necessary payback for Swartz’s indiscretions, MIT didn’t whisper in the government’s ear that it really wasn’t a big deal, and that MIT wouldn’t be safer or happier for having Swartz imprisoned.

There is no neutrality, in the sense the Reif would have that notion understood.  Either MIT wanted Swartz prosecuted harshly, or it didn’t. “Whatever,” is never an option when it comes to things like incarcerating a human being, particularly when that human being, for better or worse, is the embodiment of the very quirkiness upon which an institution, The Institute, is built.

Abelson apparently understood that what he wrote would be read with venom, an abdication of responsibility for the role of leadership that MIT assigns to itself. It’s not a place for cowards who prefer the sanitized world of marble halls where doing no wrong is an acceptable alternative for not doing right.  MIT is a place that need not exist except for the singular goal of doing what was never done before, trying to achieve something, even if it ends in failure, that no one had ever achieved. The culture of MIT never rewarded caution and reticence, the ability to merely navigate dangerous waters without hitting any shoals. That’s what Harvard is for.

When Abelson wrote that Reif’s policy was to be “neutral,” he meant for the word to be spat out, like a curse. The students understood. The Tech understood. Reif, the President of MIT did not. And worse, wore the word as a badge of pride in a place where the worst thing anyone could say about you was that you were neutral.

While Abelson toiled away at his report, trying to find the right word to convey disgust with sufficient lipstick that Reif wouldn’t be offended, MIT was busy painting over long-beloved murals from classes past that failed to comport with Reif’s vision of a politically correct, inoffensive, very neutral school. And he tore down the Burton-Conner bar, for fear that liquor would be served, because at Reif’s version of MIT, no one would drink anything but plain vanilla milk.

So Reif was neutral. The new school color will be beige on beige. And Aaron Swartz was dead. Still, there is no one there with a collar to pop, no matter how hard Reif wishes to remake MIT into a school palatable to the wealthy masses, and that’s the takeaway from Abelson’s report on MIT’s role in the Aaron Swartz prosecution.  Rafael Reif has no reason to be proud of himself.



6 comments on “At MIT, Neutrality isn’t Neutral

  1. Marc R

    I think you give MIT far too much credit. It’s natural for shareholders to assign as lofty qualities to the present that solely existed in decades past to wish what was still is. While a phenomenal university, it still suffers the general bureaucracy that plagues nearly every other large American university. I still experience a political body, well-versed in finance, accounting, and the law, with layers of associate deans, deans, associate provosts, provosts, presidents, and boards of trustees. Dealing with a modern university is akin to dealing with nearly every Fortune 500 company.
    I won’t comment on the report since I haven’t read it, but the fact MIT appointed a computer science professor who solely has an engineering background speaks loudly to the the administration embodying a laissez-faire yet creative focus. Maybe this computer science professor has a history of being a shill for MIT and is a political type who has sights of deanships. But even if this is the case this fellow is not a trained investigator with a legal background who has conducted wrongful death or some other type of tortious conduct determinations.
    Though he may not have the experience to conduct an investigation, I like what MIT did here. A benefit of this report, and perhaps most subversive of all, is how it shows criminal justice or legal investigations as an art may be overrated. You don’t need handbooks, manuals, or the Reid technique to analyze the facts collected through the lens of the law. Even Bacon’s Novum Organum lays out a scientific method based on defining specific questions, researching the topics and getting any equipment or instruments needed, form a hypothesis that explains the said specific questions, test said hypothesis by collecting data in a way that can be replicated, analyze the data, interpret the data to draw conclusions so you can construct a new hypothesis, publish your results, and re-test or have other scientists retest your hypothesis. Probably a trained scientist, knowing what the facts and the applicable law are, could produce more accurate results than many “renowned” legal investigators.

    1. SHG Post author

      Until recently, not only was this the culture of MIT per se, but it was beloved and protected by the Institute. From the outside, its easy to speculate, never having seen or understood how deeply rooted the culture was, or how it fit into the core of the place. The change is very recent, following closely upon Reif’s tenure. While I could assume otherwise, I am unfortunately constrained by facts.

      1. Fubar

        I can state, from firsthand recollections of residing on Burton 4th probably before you began elementary school, that you are correct in saying “not only was this the culture of MIT per se, but it was beloved and protected by the Institute.”

        There were limits, however. Circa 1963, some students were expelled, or at least suspended for a semester or more. They had hired a foreign printing company (from Taiwan as I recall) to print cheap photocopies of textbooks for some required MIT classes.

        They sold the copied texts cheaply to students but at a some profit as I recall, creating a small campus black market in pirated textbooks. It is possible that the fact that the texts were authored by MIT faculty had some influence on the expulsion or suspension actions. But it is also possible that it did not.

        As I recall there were no criminal copyright violation prosecutions nor civil suits.

        I have recollections of other contemporaneous “hacks” (‘tute parlance for clever but unlawful acts with amusing results) which were doubtless prosecutable but not prosecuted; nor otherwise disciplined beyond an informal and unrecorded admonishment by the dean of students while struggling to keep a straight face. But this particular one is as close on point as I can muster.

        1. SHG Post author

          Imagine MIT without hacks. Last year, Reif ordered hacks removed as quickly as possible. His MIT has no hacks.

          1. Fubar

            Perhaps the alumni fund needs a small, lawful hack: some contributions specifically designated “In Memory of Aaron Swarz”.

            Corporate has always publicly listed contributions, and their designations.

            Yes, I know Aaron was not an alum. But:

            Alumni Fund contribution: $100
            Postage: $0.46
            Corporate butthurt: Priceless

  2. Pingback: The Aaron Swartz Legacy: Do Something | Simple Justice

Comments are closed.