The MIT Response to Aaron Swartz’s death

The past two days have been emotionally draining for me. It shows how much Aaron Swartz accomplished in his young life that even though I never met him in person, I was as crushed by the news of his suicide as if a close friend had died.

I had always thought that if anyone could fight to change a system for good, Aaron was one of the best equipped for our generation. His death sucked a lot of hope out, frankly. But the letter today from MIT president Rafael Reif restored a little of it again. MIT had taken a beating from Aaron’s family and never would I have expected an institution to be so contrite and so concerned about a non-student accused of committing a campus crime. The incident took place before Reif’s term but he shows no desire to wash his hands of it, appointing a strong defender of Internet rights to conduct a “thorough analysis” into how MIT contributed to this tragedy:

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

I'm a programmer journalist, currently teaching computational journalism at Stanford University. I'm trying to do my new blogging at