FitFinder founder Rich Martell has pulled the plug on his website, after facing disciplinary action from UCL, who have accused him of “bringing the university into disrepute”.
Since its launch on 24 April 2010, FitFinder has received over five million hits from students across 50 different universities. But now Martell, the 21 year old creator of the site, has come under pressure from University authorities to take the site down for good.
Martell revealed that UCL had summoned him multiple times for meetings with “very senior members of the University”. Martell was fined £300, the maximum allowed under UCL rules. University bosses told him that “we want you to take the fine now” and that the university would “take disciplinary action” if he did not cooperate with the university discipline.
“My degree could be put in doubt if the site remains up” said the worried computer scientist. “This could be taken to a disciplinary hearing – if it is, then my degree is withheld until the result of that hearing. A punishment such has expulsion would not be out of the question”
When Cherwell asked Martell which UCL don was threatening him he answered “I really don’t want to wind them up further by them knowing I’ve given their name.”
Cherwell has seen a letter sent to Mr Martell by Ruth Siddall, UCL’s Dean for Students.
It reads “A potential charge UCL can bring against you is ‘bringing the College into disrepute’ by setting up this website…it could be taken as inciting internet stalking and sexual harrassment…There is very strong feeling from senior colleagues here at UCL and also in the complaint from LSE that we should take action against you… Richard – do you have a lawyer? If not I suggest that you get one!”
Martell said that he has been left penniless by the fine and unable to afford legal advice of his own, forcing him to take the site down.
UCL’s disciplinary code states “Misconduct which may be the subject of disciplinary procedures under this Code is defined as…behaviour which brings UCL into disrepute.”
Martell wrote on theFitfinder.co.uk about the “increasing pressure to take the website offline by Universities”. Speaking to Cherwell, he said “I think the main reason UCL were taking action was because they received complaints from other universities such as LSE.”
Last week the London School of Economics told The Times: “We’re against the site and we’ve asked people not to use it. First of all we had some complaints from students who found it insulting and secondly if you’re in the library you’re there to study.”
UCL’s Press Office said in a statement that “UCL does not approve of or condone this site” and admitted that the Dean of Students took “disciplinary action against the student for bringing the college into disrepute”. UCL said, “We gave him a fine and that was the end of the matter.”
A UCL spokesman said that an academic hearing was discussed internally but it was concluded that this would be “heavy handed” and decided not to take it further. He added that there was “no question” that Mr Martell’s degree would be withheld.
Martell assured Cherwell readers that “When I’m sure my degree is safe in my hand, then what we’re going to do is improve the site…we will be coming back with a more developed website as soon as possible. We are also looking to bring FitFinder to people via apps on mobile devices and across music festivals over the summer.”
Protest against the loss of Fitfinder has been coordinated online, where one petition gained over 3000 signatures in the first 24 hours.
A Facebook group set up by Scott Bryan of York University defended the site, saying that the “great majority of messages are friendly jokes and compliments…if it does look a little bit crude sometimes it because we are young and us young people are sexually frustrated.”
Oxford students’ reactions to the loss of the website were mixed. Some were outraged, seeing UCL’s approach as draconian, and condemned what they saw as the university’s vendetta against one of its own students. History student Greg Manuel said that UCL were “unreasonable to ask [Martell] to close the site as it just opens the way for [other companies] to do the same thing.”
But not all comments have been so supportive. One poster on Fitfinder’s Facebook page condemned Mr Martell’s decision as cowardly. Oliver Warren said “YOU have caved in to their pressure. Getting people to waste their time filling out surveys is ridiculous and unnecessary…just re-open the site…get some balls – try looking to the pirate bay for inspiration if you really lack a spine.”
Oxford Women in Politics president Krisztina Csortea thought the site should stay. She said “I haven’t noticed any increase in misogyny since the appearance of Fitfinder. As far as I am aware, it mentioned both men and women, and I don’t think it had significantly more adverse consequences than gossip columns or ‘fit’ contests.”
Other students were concerned about how they would while away long library hours without the site. One Exeter lawyer concluded that “Not only is FitFinder a laugh and a light hearted way to break up revision, practically speaking it’s also effectively a sat-nav for clunge.”
FitFinder courted controversy from its opening. One week after launching, the Joint Academic network, the UK’s education and research network, blocked FitFinder from UK university networks over the perceived level of distraction offered by the site. However, the ban was lifted within 24 hours following floods of complaints from students.