Undergrads silenced by College administrators



One of the most important elements of the Law School, according to Dean Kagan’s statement on the Harvard Law School website, is the “rich diversity of people, perspectives, and opinions” that can be found on campus. Law students expect to hear statements that they don’t agree with, both in the classroom and around campus, and we supposedly value the benefits of open and honest discussion.

While our own school’s commitment to these ideals can be debated, one undergraduate student who tried to create his own forum for an open discussion recently found himself stymied and even threatened by Harvard College administrators and lawyers.

Aaron Greenspan, a junior at Harvard College, saw a problem. He was stuck in a course that all his classmates agreed was terrible. The class, Economics 1010a, was so bad that the undergraduate paper, The Crimson, had written articles about it and the professor had even been replaced.

Yet when Greenspan attempted to get signatures on a letter he drafted to the administration calling for changes, he found students reluctant to put their names down on paper. “They were afraid that there would be some sort of reprisals,” said Greenspan.

This led to an idea: Greenspan created a website where students could post anonymous comments about professors, classes and just about any other aspect of life at Harvard College. The site would be run by the Student Entrepreneurship Council (SEC), a student group which Greenspan headed.

Greenspan dubbed the site “CriticalMass,” after a comment by one Harvard administrator who said that student concerns are only responded to when there is a “critical mass” of complaints.

Greenspan later expanded his site to include a place where students could sell and exchange textbooks, and also a web-based e-mail client where students could check their e-mail. He named the revamped site “houseSYSTEM,” and placed the pages on-line in August 2003.

“I expected some resistance from the house webmasters,” said Greenspan. After all, his site would directly compete with both the undergraduate house websites, and also with the existing Harvard web-based e-mail client (which one administrator described to Greenspan as “horrible”).

Harvard cracks down

What Greenspan didn’t expect was a letter from Harvard College administrators threatening unspecified “disciplinary action” if he did not immediately turn over the names of all the users of his site.

“The 400 people who signed up to use the site believed their information would be kept anonymous,” said Greenspan. “I explained to the administration several times that I was not storing any passwords on my site.”

Greenspan also offered to show the administrators the database that he was using without turning over names. However, once again they demanded that he turn over his entire user list. This time, they even threatened to discipline every student involved in the SEC, whether or not they had anything to do with Greenspan’s website.

Greenspan, fearing suspension or even expulsion, turned over the names. He also sent an e-mail to the users of his site explaining his decision and apologizing for having to give out their private information. “I received some support, but also a lot of flame mail in response to that,” said Greenspan.

After convincing the administration that he was not storing passwords on his site, Greenspan asked if he could put houseSYSTEM back online. Yet administrators again looked for ways to block the site. This time, he received notification that he was infringing on copyright and trademark laws for using the Harvard name and shield without permission.

Greenspan explained to administrators that the website was run by a valid undergraduate student group, the SEC. He also was careful to give credit to any material on his site that was copyrighted.

“At one point they told me my copyright message was inadequate because I included the word ‘The’ before ‘President and Fellows of Harvard University,'” exclaimed a frustrated Greenspan, “and if you look at the Harvard website, their copyright statement is exactly the same as mine.”

Seeking counsel

Greenspan had to contact private attorneys in order to help him challenge the infringement claims of the University, as the College provided him with no legal counsel.

“Jay Ellison, the Lowell House Senior Tutor, supposedly served as my conduit to the rest of the administration,” said Greenspan, but he noted that the arrangement was awkward because Ellison also served as the house disciplinarian and had to enforce the policies handed down by the Office of General Counsel and other administrators.

“I thought about contacting The Berkman Center [at HLS],” said Greenspan, “but they had never been responsive in the past so I didn’t think it would be worthwhile.”

Today Greenspan’s site is finally online, and it has almost 1,000 users. There is still no e-mail access capability because of administration concerns about passwords, despite the fact that Greenspan turned over the entire database to them. “I also still haven’t heard if they ever deleted the personal information I sent to them,” said Greenspan. He noted that there has never been any security breach involving his site.

When asked if this ordeal had made him consider a career in law, Greenspan replied, “I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I should go into law, but I’m not sure I want to.” He then added, “but my Mom is going to help me find some gifts for my lawyers. I really owe them.”

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