Monday, October 1, 2007

A Letter from Chancellor Clay

In my mailbox this morning I found this letter from Chancellor Clay to the MIT student body. Any emphasis is mine.

Dear Students:

I am writing to you about an important matter -- protecting our
celebrated traditions while taking full responsibility for our actions. As members of the MIT community, we must be committed to both. Events over the last year and trends over the last few years have raised legitimate concerns, and it has become clear that we need to reaffirm core principles and sharpen our commitment to our obligations.

In this letter, I want to address two areas of concern. The first is
hacking and the second is integrity. Hacking is the design and execution of harmless pranks, tricks, explorations, and creative inventions that demonstrate ingenuity and cleverness. Hacking is an MIT tradition that has figured in the presentation of MIT to the outside world and within our community, it has been an opportunity for friendly competition and community building.

Historically, hacks have been creatively and thoughtfully executed
without injury, destruction of property, or public notoriety for the hackers or MIT. The true hacking tradition embraces a "code" that requires hackers to identify themselves and to leave instructions explaining what was done and how restoration can be completed. True hackers quickly identify themselves when they encounter the police, and they do not confront or evade the police. Hackers do not create public hazards. Ultimately, individuals are responsible for their actions and any intentional or unintentional consequences.

If this is our history, you might be asking: what is new and why I am
concerned now? There are three shifts that I will highlight. First, this letter is prompted by numerous events over the past couple years that have revealed a need to re-emphasize safety, responsibility, and integrity. The incidents that give us pause come with a concerning frequency. Hackers or want-to-be-hackers have suffered serious injury and narrowly escaped much worse in recent years. Other incidents have put students (and MIT) in awkward positions in relation to law enforcement agencies or brought notoriety to the Institute. This is unacceptable.

Second, times have changed. Let me give a few examples. Parents have
complained about the tradition of "showering,"which has been viewed as harmless in the past but now looks like a form of hazing, which is against the law in Massachusetts. Post 9/11, new security and safety regulations and standards assign new responsibilities to the institute for access to certain locations on campus and how particular materials and equipment are secured. We cannot deny the fact that what was tolerated in the past, and may even have been celebrated, is now viewed differently. We have little control over these shifts. Dangerous or illegal behavior labeled as hacks is a risk for us all and threatens our ability to be as open as we have been in the past. As part of a larger community, we must respect laws and expectations and we must exercise self-discipline in order to protect the freedom and openness we cherish.

In response to these challenges, I have two requests. First, we have to
re-embrace the true hacking tradition. In our community, we must hold ourselves to it. Those who violate the tradition, by endangering themselves or others, by breaking the law or other departures from the "hacking code of conduct" cannot seek protection from responsibility, and they will be held accountable for their actions. We will soon add to the student handbook language that frames student responsibility in this area. This language has been developed over the last several months with input from students, faculty, and administration. The survival of a great MIT tradition depends on the willingness of the
members of the community to protect it. I am asking your individual and group support and cooperation.

The second matter I want to address is integrity. There are two
worrying trends. First, the faculty has growing concerns about academic dishonesty -- plagiarism, inadequate documentation, etc. Second, despite efforts over the last three years to remind students that downloading copyrighted material violates MIT policy and is illegal, this activity persists. MIT and offending individuals have been under growing legal pressure. While new technologies enable new behaviors, the development of new ways to gather music or videos does not change the standard embodied in the law or our obligations. Integrity and respect for laws are fundamental elements to our credibility.I appreciate that this is new territory. I hope that you will seek advice and assistance rather than ignore the law.

I ask you to consider seriously our traditions and our
responsibilities. Hacks that violate traditions make us appear thoughtless and reckless. Behavior that suggests we do not apply the standard of integrity to new technologies undermines our credibility. I hope you will appreciate that an erosion of confidence in MIT's self-discipline undermines our ability to serve the world.

While our disciplinary system can and will hold students accountable,
our pride and discipline are a far more reliable means to preserve and advance our community. I ask for your cooperation and support in celebrating and protecting our traditions, taking responsibility, and upholding integrity. I welcome suggestions for how we can make the response to these challenges a community project with students taking a leadership role. Doing that will model the leadership we all want our students to claim and will be the source of great pride.


There are a lot of good things in this email, and yet there are also many parts of it that bother me. The letter is streaked through with the traces of Star Simpson, the bungled Sodium Drop, and the E52 hackers from last year - and yet the Chancellor isn't straightforward enough to actually mention the events themselves. All he says is that these incidents are "unacceptable." What exactly is that supposed to mean?

As for the "language" due to be added to the Student Handbook, I am not terribly concerned about that at the moment, since I've known it was coming. I would hope to see it before it's actually implemented, of course, but for the most part I trust that the students involved have been doing the best they can to ensure that the "language" is fair to all sides.

I have to run to calc recitation now, but I'm probably going to update this later. In the meantime, anyone else want to venture a few thoughts?


Isshak Ferdjani said...

hey, is that some kind of warning ? like "we are imposing you limits and you better respect them or else" kind of thing ? it sure sounds threatening to me, i thought one of MIT's value is, well, crazyness of its students.

Star said...

Ok, so I typed up a whole long well thought out response to your post, but then my battery went and died on me, and I lost what I had written.

Basically, though, I said that hacking and the rest of MIT’s traditions are what make MIT what it is, and they can’t, nor should they be, removed. However safety is also important, and must be taken into account, so I guess in a way that’s good. I think, more than anything, the problem is that thing which, even a couple of years ago, wouldn’t have caused authorities to bat an eyelash, are becoming much more frowned upon.

As for Star, the sodium drop, and the E52 hackers, although I’m not an authority on any of those cases, I truly don’t believe that the MIT students were at fault in any of them. Making traditions safer is one thing, but this doesn’t apply at all to Star (who I firmly believe did nothing wrong). As for the sodium drop, while it does need to remain safe, wasn’t in concluded that the sodium wasn’t even from East Campus? And the E52 hackers – ok, so they were caught exploring, but I still don’t get why it was such a big deal. I mean they did follow the hacking code, and it seems to me that the whole thing, much like the Star Simpson case, was blown a bit out of proportion.

I don’t know, those are just my thoughts... feel free to completely disagree.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...being a non-MITer, I'm not really sure how to respond to this. On one hand, safety is important, and so is the hacking code. People should follow it so that hacking can continue long after they, themselves, leave MIT.

However, the inspecific tone of the letter is annoying. It's not like people don't already know what has happened...the events don't need to be blanketed with euphemisms. Also, wasn't it determined that EC was innocent in the Sodium Drop affair?

Paul said...

@ Isshak: I am as confused as you are. As I said, I'm not too worried as yet that they could "ban hacking," but I guess we'll have to wait and see.

@ Star: The Sodium Drop incident was almost certainly not caused by East Campus - but it was fairly likely still related to an MIT event.

I do believe that both Star's episode and the E52 problem were blown out of proportion, and in Star's case that was the media's fault as much as MIT's. Star...well, in my opinion she wasn't reckless, which is the very poorly-chosen word the administration used - yet what she did still wasn't particularly intelligent or thoughtful, and it does reflect badly. Still, ultimately no charges were filed in the Mooninite scare, and I hope Star's case is also resolved fairly.

By the way: there's supposed to be a "State of the Institute" forum tomorrow, so I'm going to go to that and see what the speakers have to say. Until then, I'll hold off on making any further comments on the administration per se.

Paul said...

@ Kate: Sorry, I started writing my response before you posted. I firmly believe in the hacking code of ethics, and I really believe that it should be one of the principal elements of "hacking education" here at MIT...regardless of how exactly that education occurs. ;)

Anonymous said...

Oh god, don't get me riled up on this one. I just won't shut up.

But, I will say two things.
1) You are correct. EC wasn't Na drop.
2) It's absolutely asinine to try to put rules on behavior that's considered illegal/against the rules.

Star said...

Hunter, I don't know about that last comment... I think that making some things less taboo and outlining the exact rules are pretty important. I hate when authorities completely ban something they know people will do anyways, because then they can’t impose any safety regulations at all. At least acknowledge it, and outline exactly what is ok and what isn’t, that way it can remain safe. (Not talking about anything in particular here, just a general pet peeve of mine).

Isshak Ferdjani said...

i have the feeling there has been new rules discussed, like trying to "restore" MIT's image or something (maybe because of all the controverses that hapenned lately including (but not limited to) the airport scandla (i agree totally blown out of proportions by the media), Jones,...
fight back MIT students ! even if we are the millenias or whatever, we still fight unjustified authority !!

Anonymous said...

In that case, I think the law has to make up its mind. Either, a) it's not allowed, or b) it's allowed. Saying, "we won't allow it, but just in case you do it..." doesn't make sense. If you really want to regulate something, make it legal. It doesn't make sense otherwise.

Paul said...

Melissa, I see your point. And indeed, if hackers were never caught, there wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, you and I both know that's not the case.

The policies I'm most concerned with are not those that would supposedly "regulate" hacking, even if such a thing were possible - but rather those that would come into play if (and only if) hackers are discovered.

snively said...

Hacking will persist, there's no way they'll stop it. There's only one thing I'd like to correct about that article:

Hackers have NEVER revealed who they are! That's the whole point. It's nice of the article to sneak that in with a bunch of other stuff in an attempt make it true by association, but anonymity is key to hacking.

Hawkins said...

I just came across this today (a bit behind on my blog-stalking...), and it makes me angry. Each incident you mentioned makes me angry, and this letter makes me angry. I refuse to be terrorized and I can't stand alarmists. Someday I'll write a good long entry on this topic, but for now I'm getting this sarcastic shirt. =)

Hawkins said...
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