MIT Supports OpenCourseWare, Condemns Aaron Swartz

The motivations of OpenCourseWare (OCW) and Aaron Swartz should have been in absolute alignment. The two should have collaborated on efforts to help enlighten those in the world who have little or no access to education, placing knowledge previously relegated to the world of academia into the hands of millions.

But that never happened. The university at the head of the OCW movement, the one that first granted it serious relevancy, had other plans. It placed its emphasis instead on helping to sustain the unjust criminal charges against Swartz that eventually led to his suicide on Friday.

No one seems to know why it did this, but in doing so it has showcased what can only be described as a prime display of institutional cognitive dissonance.

MIT first launched its OCW program in 2001, sharing with the world the amazing lectures of Walter Lewin among others, and releasing course material that would otherwise have never seen the light of day. While OCW was a bit of a strange phenomenon at the time, it would eventually become one of the most promising efforts in the free spread of knowledge online. MIT's program especially took off, increasing the university's already illustrious reputation, and giving dozens of other institutions the desire to share their best teachings with the world as well.

On the MIT OCW About page, President L. Rafael Reif explained the ideology driving OCW:
MIT’s mission statement charges us to advance knowledge and educate students, and to bring knowledge to bear on the world's great challenges for the betterment of humankind. Open sharing of knowledge is the purest manifestation of this mission.

But, as it is with most things in today's society, it seems that the lip-service paid to OCW programs turns out to be more advertising than it does policy. In a statement realized by Swartz's family, they signaled MIT's involvement in the affair:
Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Why didn't MIT speak out? Why, especially when MIT President Emeritus Charles M. Vest serves as a trustee at both Ithaka (which owns JSTOR) and The MIT Corporation? Surely at least he was aware of what was going on. Given MIT's powerful message in support of freedom of information, how can we look at this as anything but utter hypocrisy?
Despite being less guilty than self-serving government lackeys like Carmen Ortiz, Stephen Heymann and Scott Garland - who would have clung to any pretense they could find to back the Justice department's ongoing witch-hunt against those who believe information should be free - MIT's involvement in Swartz's fate hits me closer to home.  I've long been a both a fan and user of MIT OCW, and always thought that, to some degree, they really did believe in the "open sharing of knowledge" for "the betterment of humankind".

Maybe I was naive.  I mean, how much dedication to the idea of free learning can we really expect from a system of higher education that is so often closed off to the poor?  Maybe, but I'm one of those who has felt somewhat indebted to MIT in the past.  I've personally benefited greatly from several of their courses, after all, and I know plenty of others who have too.  Besides, MIT certainly didn't need the boost to their reputation; they were already one of the highest rated schools in the world before OCW even existed.

Still, their inaction can hardly be passed off as some sort of accident, or oversight.  And we can't just ignore what happened simply because we've considered MIT to be one of the 'good guys'.  Students and faculty at MIT should be angry about this.  At least, a hell of a lot more angry than they've shown to be so far.  We need serious protests, petitions, angry letters, and the like.  We need to make sure that those in high places are held accountable for their actions - not just in the government and among corporate boards, but in any institutions that collude with the powerful against the weak.

We owe it to Aaron Swartz to fight for this.  We owe it to him to achieve true justice, not that which only serves the interests of those who deny our collective humanity.

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