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Following Aaron Swartz suicide, MIT President’s statement

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia meetup

“Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community.”

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia meetup
Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia meetup

The CMS community—in particular several of its colleagues at the Center for Civic Media who knew Aaron Swartz well—is grappling with the reality that he is no longer with us.

There is a widely-shared tension on campus right now between private mourning and public reaction, between whether (or if it’s even a choice) to honor to Swartz’s life in the way family and friends would any other, or to lay blame for Swartz’s emotional struggles at the feet of the U.S. Department of Justice and MIT, as his family has, for pursuing, or not fighting, respectively, a federal case against him for using the MIT network to download millions of academic documents from JSTOR.

That tension seems to be reflected in the statement yesterday from MIT President Rafael Rief, and from what we’ve heard, the appointment of Hal Abelson as the lead on this internal review, and the promise to make it public, is an acknowledgment by the Institute that it will take responsibility if and wherever due.

To the 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

Andrew Whitacre
Written by
Andrew Whitacre

Andrew directs the communications efforts for CMS/W and Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education. A native of Washington, D.C., he holds a degree in communication from Wake Forest University, with a minor in humanities, as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College.

This work includes drawing up and executing strategic communications plans, with projects including website design, social media management and training, press outreach, product launches, fundraising campaign support, and event promotions.

Andrew Whitacre Written by Andrew Whitacre