IAP brings changes, challenges

Students hack and hunt, Institute reacts to Swartz death

Independent Activities Period (IAP) is a time for many students to travel or intern off-campus, while others come back to campus early to take classes, participate in coding and design challenges, or attend some of the numerous student-run activities offered during January. Although one might expect IAP to be a quiet time on-campus since not all students have returned, January was a busy month at the Institute.

Administrative Announcements

At the beginning of IAP, Dean Daniel E. Hastings, PhD ’80, announced he will step down from his position as Dean of Undergraduate Education this summer. Hastings plans to take a sabbatical and will return afterwards to his faculty position as Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics (Course 16) and the Engineering Systems Division (ESD). During his seven-year tenure in the MIT administration, Hastings helped MIT face the most recent recession, established the Global Education and Career Development Center, and promoted diversity within the student body. He told MIT News he is most proud of the progress he made in “enabling more of our students to have global education experiences,” through online classes and more study abroad opportunities.

In other administrative news, four more dorms will receive RLADs next fall. Director of Residential Life Programs, Christina Davis, confirmed that three new RLAD positions will be created, one each for EC and Baker, and one that will serve both Random and Bexley, but live in Bexley. This means Senior House is now the only dorm without plans to get an RLAD next fall. Senior Associate Dean for Student Life, Henry J. Humphreys, is still in discussions with the Senior House housemasters about whether or not the dorm will have an RLAD in the future.

“We need to come to a better understanding of what Senior House’s needs are … until we define the goals, we don’t want to put someone in the [RLAD] position,” said Humphreys. According to Humphreys, they have not decided where exactly the new RLAD apartments will be in these dorms. The Division of Student Life will begin searching for candidates in late March or April, and the new RLADs will hopefully move into their residences this June.

Aaron Swartz

MIT faced a potential scandal in the aftermath of Internet activist Aaron H. Swartz’ suicide on Jan. 11. His uncle broke the news in a comment on The Tech’s website. The death of a brilliant mind became a maelstrom of accusations and repercussions for MIT. Federal district courts had indicted Swartz in June 2011 for mass downloading of JSTOR articles on MIT’s network, using a laptop hidden in the basement of Building 16. He faced up to 35 years in prison. MIT became entangled in the case when JSTOR detected the unusual activity on the Institute’s network. MIT placed video cameras in the basement to identify the laptop owner, and later provided law enforcement with logs of Swartz’ network activity without a warrant or subpoena.

The Aaron Swartz legal case jumped to the top of social news websites like HackerNews and Reddit, with many online commentators claiming MIT was partially responsible for Swartz’ death. Internet hacking groups attacked MIT in protest. Hacking group “Anonymous” claimed credit for a denial-of-service attack (DoS) on Sunday, Jan. 13, which prevented campus users from accessing most websites for about three hours. The website domain was hacked again on Jan. 22 allegedly by a different group LulzSec. Traffic to the website was diverted to a hacked page portraying one of Swartz’ blog posts. MIT’s EDUCAUSE email account password was compromised during this attack as well, and hackers redirected email through servers at KAIST, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. The extent of email traffic which successfully sent during this time is still unknown.

In response to Swartz’ death, MIT President L. Rafael Reif released an email statement to the MIT community expressing the Institute’s sorrow. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” wrote Reif.

Reif asked Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Hal Abelson to head a committee which will report on MIT’s specific involvement in the Swartz incident. The committee report is intended to help the administration “to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took,” according to Reif’s email. The commission has received dozens of questions from the MIT community through their online review process (, though the report will not be released until later this spring.

Hacks and Hunts

Later in the month, students from around the world gathered at MIT for the annual Mystery Hunt, a puzzle-solving competition which takes place over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. MIT’s Mystery Hunt is known for its intricate, difficult-to-solve clues and intense, round-the-clock puzzle solving sessions. This year’s hunt earned the title of longest lasting hunt, with a record time of 73 hours and 18 minutes. As tradition dictates, last year’s winning team, the Manic Sages, devised this year’s puzzle competition. The winners, who hold the record for the longest hunt team name, the full text of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, were declared the victors of the competition at 11:56 a.m. on Monday.

In addition to Mystery Hunt, MIT students found plenty of other opportunities to put their brains to work over IAP. Groups of students participated in classes and various company-sponsored hack-a-thons and coding competitions, such as PokerBots and the 270 competition series.

After generating many good ideas in their coding challenges, students took some time to indulge bad ideas. In the annual Bad Ideas weekend, hosted by East Campus from Jan. 25 to 27, students competed in several questionable competitions, including a Taco Bell eating contest, butter sculpting, and a Craigslist Scavenger Hunt. In the infamous Green Building challenge, students battled each other and twenty stories of stairs to see who could make the most ascents in 4 hours.

Awards and Accolades

Several MIT professors garnered new accolades during IAP.

Professor Sallie W. “Penny” Chisholm was awarded the National Medal of Science by the White House. Chisholm, a Professor in Environmental Studies in Course 1, focuses her work on microbial oceanography. Chisolm told The Tech, “I’m excited that the committee is recognizing my field. The honor doesn’t often to go people in my field, so that’s an exciting recognition of microbial oceanography.”

Eminent chemical and biological engineer, Professor Robert Langer, ScD ’74, received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Langer is one of seven Americans to receive both his recent award and the National Medal of Science. It was announced in early January that Langer will also be awarded the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in Israel’s Knesset in May. Langer was pleased that “[His awards] may also contribute to making students or postdocs feel that biomedical engineering in general is a good field in which to work.”

Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s new vice president for research and EAPS professor, was honored to be nominated by President Barack Obama to serve on the National Science Board. She is enthusiastic about incorporating her research experience into her two positions and believes it will help her fulfill her duties. “What I was told by the White House was that the fact that I was an active researcher was something they viewed as very positive because people who are active researchers understand the challenges with the current research environment,” said Zuber.

The future of IAP

While IAP has been a long-standing feature of MIT (it was introduced in 1971), the IAP Subcommittee of the Faculty Policy Committee is in the process of reviewing the program. IAP has undergone significant changes since it began, notably the increase in for-credit subjects. Last August, MIT students received a survey about their IAP activities via email. The subcommittee, made up of faculty, Institute employees, and undergraduate and graduate students, intends to analyze this data and release a report with their findings.

Whatever changes may come, this year’s IAP proved to be full of excitement for students and faculty alike.