Why Did Osgood and Francis Take Down Plans?

Last Revised: Monday, 4 August 2003

There has been a lot of criticism of President Osgood and Bill Francis for taking down Plans. Much of that criticism focuses on a particular reasons that they may have taken down Plans. Unfortunately, we don't really know why they took down Plans. From my discussions and reflection, it's pretty clear to me that there were a combination a factors that led them to take down plans.

Disclaimer: These views are not necessarily my views. They may not be the views of President Osgood and Bill Francis (although I believe many are). I am simply reporting my perspective on their potential views. I am presenting them because I think it's important for people to understand other people's perspectives. Just as I thought it was important for President Osgood and Bill Francis to understand the Plans community, so do I think it important for the Plans community to understand the perspective of President Osgood and Bill Francis.

Followup: After thinking about these perspectives for a few weeks (and hearing from many other people), I think there were some very strong reasons to revamp Plans. I would have preferred a different process, but change was necessary.

Hosting of Plans Raises Potential Liabilities

There have been copyright violations on Plans. There have been libelous statements made on Plans. People have complained about both. With a one billion dollar endowment, the College is an interesting target.

Although many think that the Communications Decency Act would protect the College, it still costs money to defend against suits. In addition, no big ruling related to CDA has taken place within our circuit. (Osgood noted that the ninth circuit, which has made most of the rulings to protect ISPs and such, is frequently overturned.) So, the college does have some risk.

I'll note that my reading of the CDA suggests that the intent of Congress was to protect censors (mostly from being sued for their failure to censor enough) rather than ISPs.

A friend has noted that because of the special relationship that students and faculty have with an institution, there is some chance that they could be interpreted as speaking for the institution. That strikes me as a fairly serious concern.

Some of you have criticized Osgood for raising the spectre of child pornography. I seriously doubt that any of you would post child pornography (which can be completely textual in form) on Plans. I also doubt that the college would be any more liable for child pornography than for libel or copyright violations. So, why is Osgood concerned? He's simply trying to follow the practices of other institutions (particularly Cornell), most of which seem to include such a clause.

Plans Presents a Negative View of the College

A President often makes it his/her duty to protect the public image of the College. Russell is seriously concerned about the view Plans presents of the College.

In my meeting with President Osgood, he repeatedly referred to the fact that Web pages live forever. He also noted his concern for the way in which individual plans not only libel some people, but also how the Plans community as a whole sometimes attacks a person. (Although he didn't mention any particulars, I can think of attacks on Sechyi and on Dag from a surprisingly large number of Planners.) If Plans is viewable by the outside world, what do these kinds of actions say about the College?

Yes, I know that Plans is primarily a positive thing. However, someone could focus on these negatives. If I were a parent browsing Plans before sending my child to Grinnell, I would note that there are a surprisingly large number of postings that refer to inadequate mental health care and incompetency of the student affairs staff. After reading that, I might be less likely to allow my child to attend Grinnell. Should that be a concern not only to the president, but to all members of the Grinnell community? Yes.

People Use Plans to Attack and Harass Others

While many of us primarily see the positive side of Plans, there is certainly a negative side. Many members of the Plans community use their Plans to post some fairly nasty things about other people at Grinnell (other students, other faculty, etc.). Although such comments could have been made in other ways, they sometimes seem more powerful on Plans. First, Plans is a fairly public space. People from around the world can read Plans. Second, many members of Plans seem to act as a group. That is, you can see lots and lots of people attacking a particular individual or group. Do such attacks happen often? I don't know. President Osgood has noted that it's horrible if even one such attack has happened.

Such attacks clearly violate the community spirit of Grinnell and the spirit of self-governance. They also present an inappropriate view of the College to the outside world.

Some of you have suggested that someone who is attacked or harassed on Plans can simply ignore the other Plan. However, it's not so easy. Someone may not know that someone is attacking him/her until he/she reads the Plan of the attacker. As importantly, if people know they are being attacked, they can't easily ignore such attacks, particularly since they are broadcast to the world.

Plans Had No Policies

President Osgood and Bill Francis are administrators and bureaucrats. As such, they like there to be policies or guidelines for everything. As you may know, there are no firm policies for Plans, other than that Plans users are to follow the Academic Computer Use Policies and that KenslerJ has final say on everything. That's not enough for a bureaucrat.

Why have policies? They help ensure fair and uniform treatment. They give people advance notice about how things are supposed to proceed. They help limit liability.

As you might guess, a good policy takes a long time to draft. In addition to getting input from the community (if you believe that's important), you also need to run it by a lawyer to make sure that it does what you want it to do. (Yes, I know that one could make this argument about ACUP. How one reacts to someone else is often different from how one reacts to self.) They may have decided that their concerns were significant enough that it had to go down until a good set of policies could be drafted.

Plans Includes People Outside Grinnell's Control

Both President Osgood and Bill Francis have noted their concerns about Plans including people other than students, faculty, staff, and trustees. Those concerns are most obvious in the new ACUP. They seem to have some worries about our particular liability for the actions of those people, although I'm not sure why.

In our meeting, President Osgood also noted that one of his concerns about people off campus using Plans is that we can't impose sanctions on them, other than removing their access to Plans. (No, I still don't understand why it would be necessary to impose sanctions, but it was clearly a concern.)

Dealing with alums and other people off campus is one of the reasons it is likely to take the College a long time to come up with an acceptable policy.

They Had No Idea How Important Plans Is

I'm not sure how much Bill Francis knew about Plans, other than that it wasn't commercial software and that it generated complaints. He knew it was used, but he probably didn't know how much. As a side note, he's told me in the past that Vax plans was only used by a small fraction of campus, primarily CS and Physics majors, so I think he regularly underestimates such uses. He has also told me that he was unaware that Plans had improved security by moving to a new server.

I've been told by some others in the know that President Osgood had almost no sense of what Plans was and how much impact it had.

While it's still wrong to take down something like Plans on short notice, even if it has only a dozen users, they may have felt that it could safely go down for a month or two while the campus discussed alternatives.

ITS Prefers Alternatives to Plans

Bill Francis clearly prefers commercial software. He's had some bad experience trying to support student-written software. (From my perspective, the problem often happens because students have to write software for a commercial platform that then changes, rather than a lower-level set of resources, like Plans uses.) He has to rely on a student (KenslerJ, currently) to impose the ACUP and cannot take swift action. He wants the campus to use our centralized system (Blackboard/PioneerWeb). All of these perspectives may have lead him to try to find a way to encourage people to use something other than Plans.

It's Summer

I expect both felt that taking something down in the summer would affect few people. Osgood told me that his experience suggests that it's impossible to get a committee to meet during the summer, since so few faculty are available (or perhaps even read their email). Most of the student body is clearly away. Hence, you make changes in the summer.

There are two ways to view this attitude. The negative one is that you do things when everyone is away so that no one is around to complain. The positive one is that you do things when everyone is away so that it impacts the fewest possible people.

They Received Bad Advice

At least one of the most vocal opponents of Plans has said some very misleading things about Plans. Among other things, this person has claimed

While I wouldn't trust that particular person, if I were an administrator I would have no reason not to trust that person any more than some of the quite unreasonable voices that support Plans.

They Have Different Attitudes on Handling Situations

As I've said in a separate document, there are two primary ways in which people approach problems. Some, who we will call process people, like to discuss the problem, reflect on alternatives, and finally come up with what they consider a perfect solution. Others, who we will call product people, prefer to start by quickly implementing a solution and then ironing out the problems afterward.

Do both strategies work? Both can work. Both can fail to work.

Neither attitude is particularly appreciative of the other strategy. Product people think that process people debate endlessly and never come to a solution. Process people thing that product people don't give the community enough voice and can often create really bad initial solutions.

Most Grinnellians are process people. President Osgood seems to be a product person. In this case, I expect that he said Plans has too many problems. Let's take it down until we can resolve the problems. It's a quick and dirty solution, but it gets the job (the job being resolving the problems of liability and image, among other things) done quickly.

Side note: I have since heard from some people whose opinion I respect that President Osgood is a process person. He does discuss things. However, he does so with a relatively small focus group, rather than with a large group. Hence, he seems like a product person.

Summary

There were probably a large number of factors that led to the decision to take down Plans, some good, some bad. Acting as if there were only one factor is inappropriate. Did Plans have some significant problems? Yes. Did Plans need to be fixed? Certainly.

As I've said in the past, different people of good faith can come to very different conclusions. I hope we all would have wanted to fix the problems with Plans. While most of us would have used a more collaborative process to fix Plans, you need to understand that President Osgood and Mr. Francis had some very good reasons for their action.

History

Thursday, 24 July 2003

Monday, 4 August 2003


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Samuel A. Rebelsky
rebelsky@grinnell.edu