Yale’s crackdown on student Web site creates another headache for administration

"I hope I don't get kicked out of Yale for this," wrote Yale student Sean Haufler in a blog post explaining why he had created the Chrome extension Banned Bluebook.

Haufler made the extension in response to the uproar last week over the university's reaction to a student-made site, originally called Yale BlueBook+ and later renamed CourseTable which made it possible to compare course evaluations at a glance.  The creators of that site, fellow students Harry Yu and Peter Xu, were threatened with a disciplinary committee unless they took it down.

"The extension adds CourseTable's functionality to Yale's official course selection Web site in a way that doesn't infringe upon Yale's copyrighted course data," explained Haufler over e-mail. "Once you install it, the code lives in your Web browser and does some basic math to change how the course evaluations are presented."

The administration first contacted Xu and Yu before about their site the week before. The registrar's office questioned how the pair obtained the copyrighted course data, expressed concern over its display of course evaluation information  and objected to their use of Yale trademarks. Despite Xu and Yu's efforts to address their concerns, Yale banned the site from university networks Monday, calling it "malicious activity," and then threatened them with disciplinary action if the site was not removed by 5 p.m. Tuesday. They took the site down, but launched an online petition which has now garnered nearly 700 signatures asking Yale to reconsider.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller addressed the issue in an open letter Friday, writing that Xu and Yu "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." The evaluation information, she wrote, "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."

According to an updated blog post from Xu and Yu, the specific format displaying evaluations information is the result of an agreement between the faculty and the Yale administration. Yale's statement to The Post for our original story did not mention any such agreement or directly address CourseTable's use of evaluations or ratings besides mentioning information that remained available via sanctioned Yale sites.

Haufler read Miller's argument about the evaluation information as, "you can use our course evaluation data, but only if you view the data as we tell you to view it." In fact, he was aghast at what he considered censorship by the university and assumed that the administration would realize they made a mistake, until Miller's letter appeared. But after the letter was released, he "became angry and motivated." Knowing that the university's justification for shutting down CourseTable was that it "hosted Yale’s course descriptions and student evaluations," or at least derivations of them, he realized that he could do the same thing without running afoul of university rules. So he rushed to it.

"I wrote my essay and coded the Chrome extension for the next 48 hours nearly nonstop until I published them Sunday morning," he said.

Here's what the original page looked like.

(Sean Hauffler)
(Sean Haufler)

And here's the functionality added by Haufler's extension, which "never stores data on any servers" and "never talks to any non-Yale servers:"

Note: this demo uses randomly generated course evaluation rating information. (Sean Haufler)
Note: This demo uses randomly generated course evaluation rating information. (Sean Haufler)

On Monday, Miller released a second open letter — and specifically addressed Haufler's innovation. "Just this weekend, we learned of a tool that replicates YBB+'s efforts without violating Yale’s appropriate use policy," wrote Miller, "and that leapfrogs over the hardest questions before us." Those hardest questions, she believes, are those related to classroom evaluations.

"When a faculty committee decided in 2003 to collect and post these evaluations online for student use, it gave careful consideration to the format and felt strongly that numerical data would be misleading and incomplete if they were not accompanied by student comments." CourseTable and Banned Bluebook, she argues, "encouraged students to select courses on the basis of incomplete information" by displaying the averages rather than "the richer body of information" including student comments available via official Yale sites.

But Miller also acknowledged that the university "could have been more patient" before blocking the Web site and it had "erred" in attempting to compel students to use the sanctioned services. "In the end," she wrote, "students can and will decide for themselves how much effort to invest in selecting their courses."

The university, she wrote, would be reviewing how it handled the situation — and take up the question of how to respond to developments like Haufler's extension. "Technology has moved faster than the faculty could foresee when it voted to make teaching evaluations available to students over a decade ago, and questions of who owns data are evolving before our very eyes."

While no one from the university has officially contacted Haufler so far, he told The Post he appreciates Miller's response and hopes the university will use this as a learning experience. "The CourseTable incident was a complicated issue and we all make mistakes."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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