February FNL released

New edition of Faculty Newsletter addresses Tidbit subpoena, Reif’s response to open letter

The January/February Edition of the MIT Faculty Newsletter opens strongly with Prof. Hal Abelson PhD ’73, Nathan Matias G, and Ethan Zuckerman’s open letter to President L. Rafael Reif regarding Tidbit alongside Reif’s response.

Tidbit is a program built by several MIT students, including Jeremy L. Rubin ‘16 to allow websites to borrow their vistors’ computing power to online cryptocurrency like Bitcoin rather than use ads for revenue. The team presented a non-functional proof of concept at an international programming competition in November. Amidst accolades at the Hackathon for their innovative project, Rubin was served a subpoena by the State Attorney General of New Jersey demanding that they hand over the source code. The open letter expressed Abelson, Matias, Zuckerman, and others’ belief that the subpoena should be considered “an affront to our academic freedom” and be treated as Institute business. The Tidbit team sought help from MIT’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC) when they received the subpoena, but were referred to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) instead on the grounds that representation from the Institute would not be appropriate. The EFF is currently representing the team in the case.

Reif responded to the letter concisely, stating that while he supports the decision of the OGC to not be involved with the case, they are working with the EFF to make a statement in support of Tidbit. Furthermore, Reif pointed to a need for a “new legal resource for student innovators” and has tasked Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88, Chancellor Cindy Barnhart PhD ’88, and General Counsel Greg Morgan to draft a proposal.

The newsletter also features an interview with MIT Corporation Chairman John Reed ‘61, which touches on MITx, international partnerships, and commercial development in East Campus. The conversation opens with discussion of the future of MITx and potential monetization schemes. For example, MIT could develop courses for a company and charge for the service. Reed stressed however, that while MIT should look for revenue streams where they exist, the main goal of MITx is education, not making a profit.

“There are all sorts of opportunities, and we understand that. And undoubtedly, over the next five or 10 years, we’ll experiment with different models… We’re in the business of educating people, not making profits.”

On the topic of international partnerships, Reed said that there are currently no new initiatives being proposed, though such initiatives would be driven by the administration, not the Corporation. As for MIT and Russia’s existing Skolkovo Foundation partnership, a three year collaboration to develop a graduate research university in Skolkovo, Russia, Reed said, “It involves industrial companies as well as academic institutions. It’s sort of an enclave. And I think it’s struggling a little bit, but that’s not surprising. I think the first 10 or 15 years of MIT were not smooth and easy, either.”

The interview continues with Reed’s thoughts about the commercial development plans for MIT’s properties in East Campus. According to Reed, while some of the land slated for commercial development is close to the academic campus, the Institute clearly delineates between property that can be developed for academic use, and property for commercial use. For example, Reed says that Kendall square was “never seen as a place for academic expansion,” though the Sloan School was built nearby because that land was for academic use.

“What’s happened here, is we now have MITIMCo developing things that actually touch the campus. And the faculty responded by saying, whoa, what’s going on here? There are a number of faculty who live in Cambridge, and hence participate in the discussion at the Cambridge level. But it’s been quite open… No one has ever asked the Corporation to make a decision as to what should or shouldn’t be academic — we’re not in any position to do that.”