An open letter to the Yale Community from Dean Mary Miller

Monday, January 20, 2014

*** UPDATED ***

January 20, 2014

To the Yale community,

A great deal has happened since I posted my January 17 open letter regarding YBB+, so I write a second time with more information and the latest updates.

Many of you have written to me directly or posted public comments expressing your concerns that the University’s reaction to YBB+ was heavy-handed. In retrospect, I agree that we could have been more patient in asking the developers to take down information they had appropriated without permission, before taking the actions that we did. However, I disagree that Yale violated its policies on free expression in this situation.

The information at the center of this controversy is the faculty evaluation, which Yale began collecting, not as a course selection tool, but as a way of helping faculty members improve their teaching. 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. The tool created by YBB+ set aside the richer body of information available on the Yale website, including student comments, and focused on simple numerical ratings. In doing so, the developers violated Yale’s appropriate use policy by taking and modifying data without permission, but, more importantly, they encouraged students to select courses on the basis of incomplete information. To claim that Yale’s effort to ensure that students received complete information somehow violated freedom of expression turns that principle on its head.

Although the University acted in keeping with its policies and principles, I see now that it erred in trying to compel students to have as a reference the superior set of data that the complete course evaluations provide. That effort served only to raise concerns about the proper use of network controls. In the end, students can and will decide for themselves how much effort to invest in selecting their courses.

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. Just this weekend, we learned of a tool that replicates YBB+’s efforts without violating Yale’s appropriate use policy, and that leapfrogs over the hardest questions before us. What we now see is that we need to review our policies and practices. To that end, the Teaching, Learning, and Advising Committee, which originally brought teaching evaluations online, will take up the question of how to respond to these developments, and the appropriate members of the IT staff, along with the University Registrar, will review our responses to violations of University policy. We will also state more clearly the requirement/expectation for student software developers to consult with the University before creating applications that depend on Yale data, and we will create an easy means for them to do so.

I thank all who have written, either to me directly or publicly, for their thoughts and for the civility with which they expressed them.

Mary Miller
Dean of Yale College
Sterling Professor of History of Art


January 17, 2014

To the Yale Community:

This past week, students in Yale College lost access to YBB+ because its developers, although acting with good intentions, used university resources without permission and violated the acceptable use policy that applies to all members of the Yale community. The timing for its users could not have been worse: over 1,000 of them had uploaded worksheets during the course selection period and relied on those worksheets to design their course schedules. And the means for shutting down the site immediately – by blocking it – led to charges that the university was suppressing free speech.

Free speech defines Yale’s community; the people who belong to it understand that they are entitled to share their views just as they must tolerate the views of others, no matter how offensive. The right to free speech, however, does not entitle anyone to appropriate university resources. In the case of YBB+, developers 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. Those evaluations, whose primary purpose is to inform instructors how to improve their teaching, 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.

Members of the YCDO and the University Registrar met this week with the developers, and to good end: the developers learned more about the underlying problems with using data without permission, the importance of communicating in advance with the university on projects that require approval and cooperation, and some of the existing mechanisms for collaborating with the university, among them the Yale College Council. Administrators, for their part, heard more about the demand for better tools and guidelines for the growing number of student developers, the need for a better approach to students who violate the acceptable use policy – in most cases unwittingly – and the value students place on information contained in teaching evaluations. All parties agreed to work toward a positive outcome, and they remain in conversation with each other to that end.

Mary Miller
Dean of Yale College
Sterling Professor of History of Art