MIT president asks for “a thorough analysis” of Aaron Swartz case

Yesterday, The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper, broke the news that computer prodigy Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Swartz was 26 years old — an age when many are still figuring out what they want to do in the world — and already a dozen years removed from his invention of RSS. He went on to found Infogami, which later merged with Reddit, and co-founded Demand Progress.

For the past several years, Swartz’s life was dominated by a federal investigation related to his Open Access activism: In 2011, he was indicted for breaking into MIT’s computer networks and downloading almost five million scholarly articles from JSTOR. I arrived at MIT, an institute with roughly 1,000 faculty members, a few months after that indictment. It would be folly for me to pretend I had any sense of the overall sentiment of the staff here, but I never heard anyone here speak disparagingly of Swartz — and I heard a lot of people talk admiringly of his efforts.

Swartz was, by his own admission, someone who struggled with acute depression and suicidal thoughts. A few hours ago, MIT president Rafael Reif sent out this email to “members of the MIT community”:

Yesterday we received the shocking and terrible news that on Friday in New York, Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism.

Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.

I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.

I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.

I hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron’s death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.

With sorrow and deep sympathy,
L. Rafael Reif
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4 Responses to MIT president asks for “a thorough analysis” of Aaron Swartz case

  1. Phil Gorman says:

    I am astonished to read such Murdochian doublespeak emanating from a once admirable institution. How far can acedemia sink in an age of patented genes and the commodification of everything?

    This tragedy has far to run. Re-opening universal access to information for the common good is the only remedy.

  2. jre says:

    JSTOR issued a statement to the effect that the organization had settled with Aaron Swartz in June 2011 and, presumably, had no interest in seeing him prosecuted. With the injured party declining to press charges, the prosecutor’s office continued pursuing Swartz from political motives– and could easily have been persuaded to call off the dogs had MIT chosen to use its influence. Richard Stallman said it plainly: “MIT has a duty to get down on its knees and beg that this prosecution be dropped.” If only it had.

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