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January 22, 2013: To the MIT community

President Reif has asked me to lead a review of our involvement in the events that began in Fall 2010, when the library system learned that large numbers of articles were being downloaded from JSTOR, up through Aaron Swartz’s shocking suicide on January 11. Among the thousands of news articles and postings over the past week — many strongly critical of MIT — there was at least one comment that saw a glimmer of encouragement that the administration has assigned this task to a faculty member strongly identified with the ideals of free and open access to information on the Net, the same ideals that Aaron championed so passionately. I’m grateful and humbled by President Reif’s expression of confidence, and I’ll try to approach this review with fairness and with respect to Aaron’s memory, to his family, and to our community.

This matter is urgently serious for MIT. The world respects us not only for our scholarship and our science, but because we are an institution whose actions are and always have been guided by the highest ideals and the most thoughtful judgment. Our commitment to those ideals is now coming into question. At last Saturday’s memorial, Aaron’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman described his mental state: “He faced indifference from MIT, an institution that could have protected him with a single public statement and refused to do so, in defiance of all of its own most cherished principles.”

I don’t know — we don’t know — if that’s accurate or fair. But it demands our response. I hope this review can provide some insight into what MIT did or didn’t do, and why.

The review will not be a witch-hunt or an attempt to lay blame on individuals. We don’t know what we’ll find as the answers unfold, but I expect to find that every person acted in accordance with MIT policy. More than that: they acted in the belief that their actions were legally and ethically proper.

In last Sunday’s Boston Globe, distinguished MIT alumnus and former US Senator John E. Sununu writes:

“For its part, MIT is conducting the inevitable soul-searching internal investigation. New administrative policies and campus rules will be written in the soft tones of academic boilerplate. But a new policy handbook will not suffice. This is a crisis of values and judgment, and it requires a change in attitude, starting at the top.”

To this point, MIT’s administration has refrained from speaking about this matter publicly, out of its expressed desire to first have a full record of events via our report. But when the record is clear, we will all need to ask if Sununu’s criticism is on target. Are we becoming a place that, in the words of legal scholar James Boyle, “confuses order with rectitude”? That’s a question not only for MIT’s leadership, but something we will all need to ask of one another — and of ourselves.

This is for later in the spring. For now we will start with a review that gives us a clear record of what happened; that’s the review that President Reif has asked us to conduct. I hope the report can be ready in a few weeks.

There have been dozens of questions in the press and on the Net over the past week. But the most important questions are the ones that will come from the MIT community, because we are the ones who will be held to account. IS&T has created a web site at http://swartz-review.mit.edu where you can suggest questions and issues to guide this review and you can comment on the questions of others. Please remember that this is about the first phase only — questions about what happened and why. A second phase, where we all deliberate over implications, will follow.

Hal Abelson PhD ’73
Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering