When it comes to reputations for nurturing young entrepreneurs, few universities rival MIT.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosts a dedicated center for entrepreneurship, an enterprise forum to inspire tech-focused treps and a business competition that doles out more than $350,000 in prizes. It also boasts a campus that’s open year round to visitors and publishes all of its course materials online so they’re available to everyone.
So why do some think MIT recently failed to live up to its pro-trep rhetoric?
Criticism of the university erupted last month, when Aaron Swartz — who’s perhaps best known for his role in the development of RSS technology — was found dead of an apparent suicide. The trailblazing trep, who was just 26 years old, had been charged for illegally downloading millions of journal articles during physical and virtual visits to MIT — and faced up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
Even though MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, noted that Swartz had no formal affiliation with the university, he praised the entrepreneur as “a gifted young man” who was “admired” by many in the MIT community. “Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism,” Reif wrote in a statement.
But MIT, it seems, didn’t try to intervene or lend support to Swartz, who wasn’t a student at the university but held many ties to the institution. He had delivered a guest lecture there and his father has consulted at the university’s Media Lab.
Instead, MIT cooperated with police officials by monitoring and sharing evidence about Swartz, without a warrant, according to a report from The New York Times. While MIT has acknowledged that it “played a role” in Swartz’s legal struggles, the university has not released any additional details. (A spokeswoman would not comment specifically for this article, except to say that an analysis of the situation is “forthcoming.”)
Reaching out to Swartz to nurture his talents and perhaps even collaborate on some kind of legit venture may have seemed like a strange move for MIT to make. Yet alums describe the university as a long-time supporter of promising young treps — even when they’ve crossed a legal line.
In a eulogy written for Swartz, Brewster Kahle, an entrepreneur and founder of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library, described what MIT’s culture was like before he graduated in 1982. “When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, [they] might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company — but they called the cops on him,” Kahle wrote on his blog last month. “MIT used to protect us when we transgressed the traditional.”
It was a similar scene in the 1990s, when Mark Herschberg obtained his undergrad and graduate degrees from the school. “MIT has always bent over backwards for its students, including ones who do stupid, illegal stuff,” says Herschberg, who runs White Knight Consulting, which works with startups as well as struggling ventures. “MIT has said with some of these things they turn a semi-blind eye.”
Herschberg also works with the university’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, a career accelerator for sophomores. Following his recent discussions with MIT administrators, he says the school never truly saw Swartz as part of its community, which is perhaps why it reacted the way it did to the trep’s transgressions.
“If he had been a student, I don’t think this would have gone anywhere as far as it did,” says Herschberg. “They work to protect their own.”
More recent alums say that while they believed there were legal limits to consider when they practiced entrepreneurship at MIT, they likely would have remained protected. “I’m actually thinking, maybe, I should have pushed the legal boundaries a little more,” says Amanda Peyton, 29, who earned her MBA from MIT in 2010 and has gone on to co-found Grand St., an electronics retailer that curates creative technology.
Officials at other universities are following the debacle closely. Though, many of them have recently rolled out new programs to support young treps, few — if any — have launched new programs in direct response to Swartz’s death.
At Cornell Tech in New York City, which is part of Cornell University, last month a beta class for computer-science students kicked off. Nearby, the Polytechnic Institute of New York University helped create the Varick Street Incubator for startups and recently co-organized a showcase where innovative students pitched business concepts to their peers and venture capitalists.
Stanford University offers an online “entrepreneurship corner” with more than 2,000 free videos and podcasts that young treps can view at will. And through the Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, teens in and around Madison and Teaneck can attend a camp this summer that teaches entrepreneurship and business-planning strategies.
Related: Entrepreneur of 2012: Limor Fried
Still, James Barrood, the institute’s executive director, told YoungEntrepreneur.com, “We have not changed our programs due to Aaron’s death.”
MIT is now awaiting the results of a “thorough analysis” of the school’s involvement and decision-making process from the time it first perceived unusual activity on its network up until Swartz’s death. How MIT ultimately acts — or doesn’t — with its entrepreneurial outreach efforts may determine how other universities also respond.
What role do you think universities have in supporting campus entrepreneurship? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.