U of Central Florida punishes student, then rips off his idea

August 16, 2012

There’s a classic joke that the definition of chutzpah is killing your parents and then begging the court for mercy because you’re an orphan. The University of Central Florida (UCF) has now updated that joke for the Internet age: after punishing a student for inventing a better way to search for available classes, it copied his ideas and rolled out its own solution.

The victim of this unfunny joke is UCF senior Tim Arnold, who developed a system to find classes with available seats at UCF and send students a text message when those seats were available. The (now inactive) tool was called ucouldfinish.com, a reference to the difficulty that many students have in finishing college on time because they cannot get into required classes. The site now contains an exhaustive technical explanation of how the site worked and how it should have actually reduced the load on UCF’s web servers.

But when UCF detected the tool’s use of a public search function to make a list of available classes, it lowered the boom on Arnold. He was sentenced to three semesters of disciplinary probation, forced to give up his leadership in a student club, and told to write a five-page paper on how he would improve the very university website he was accused of disrupting — but forbidden from discussing how his own actions were justified, or how others screwed up!

Then came the coup de grace: last Friday, UCF rolled out a new version of its website that (guess what?) notifies students by text message when classes are available. Sound familiar? UCF even admitted that Arnold’s program "expedited" the development of new functions! But when Arnold appealed his punishment, the only change was reducing his probation from three semesters to two.

While colleges have reason to want to protect their computing resources, there’s no way to call this anything but a severe overreaction. In an economy in which governments and huge corporations are frequently hiring the very hackers with whom they once contended, for UCF to treat one of its own students this way — a non-"hacker" student who reasonably believed he was doing nothing wrong and who caused no actual damage — is shockingly shortsighted.

This myopic viewpoint isn’t confined to UCF, either. Clear across the country at the University of California, Berkeley, student Derek Low created BRAD, the Berkeley Ridiculously Automated Dorm Room. A YouTube video of the room at work became an Internet sensation, with more than 1.7 million views and coverage by major news organizations. It’s hard to think of a better advertisement for the creativity and enterprise of Berkeley students.

You can guess what happened: Berkeley shut it down. According to the May 2, 2012, Daily Californian, "an electrician was sent Wednesday afternoon to assess the space, but nothing deserving of a violation was found. … Despite the creative measures he took, residence hall officials have asked Low to appear at a judicial hearing this week because he is allegedly in violation of housing policies, and the room is a potential fire hazard, according to Low." Low quickly announced that he would be moving out of the dorms to his own apartment two weeks later, most likely because he preferred to live in a place where using technology to make things awesome was not a punishable offense. 

What prompts universities — places whose very purpose is to be engines of innovation — to treat their most creative and enterprising students this way? Part of it is a monomaniacal focus on "safety" and lack of "disruption." But another factor that can’t be overlooked is the extraordinary amount of administrative bloat that today’s colleges suffer from — and that students pay for! Unbelievably, administrators actually outnumber faculty on our nation’s campuses. And bureaucracies are not known for producing innovation — or for rewarding it when it happens.

At UCF, Berkeley, and at schools across the nation, those in charge of quashing innovative computer programs and think-outside-the-box dorm rooms almost certainly outnumber those who see it as their business to ensure that creative thinking is rewarded. Today’s students aren’t just unlearning liberty, they’re unlearning creativity itself! No wonder people like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel are encouraging people to skip college altogether. It’s time that colleges once again prioritize freedom and ingenuity above a predictable, inoffensive, but stultifying order.

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Schools: University of Central Florida University of California, Berkeley