By John Borland
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
November 11, 2003, 4:00AM PT
Students at the Canadian campus quickly protested, accusing administrators of selling out to the private sector. The university backtracked and promised that any new curricula, including a proposal to teach Microsoft's C# programming language, would go through the normal approval process before being put in place.
Microsoft, however, was unfazed. While the company said it never tried to force the curriculum change, executives stated plainly that they hoped the program would further their corporate agenda once it started last year.
The incident underscores the controversial nature of today's deepening relationships between the technology industry and educational institutions. Increasingly, schools and corporations are working openly as partners on research projects and even curricula that directly or indirectly benefit the ambitions of large companies--a trend that critics say risks compromising academic independence.
In previous years, the mere prospect of corporate influence on campuses would at times prompt wide protests over the pollution of academic purity. In 1998, for example, Microsoft withdrew from negotiations for a partnership with California State University after faculty, students and industry competitors complained that the company might get exclusive access to the college system's business.
But in today's climate of fiscal austerity, pragmatism has muted any calls for wholesale rejection of corporate relationships. In fact, most educators and administrators publicly defend these arrangements as necessary alternatives for their perpetually cash-strapped schools, saying that private corporations provide much-needed supplementary funds for state-of-the-art equipment and research that otherwise would not take place.
Such testimonials rankle those who believe that many schools use the fiscal crisis as a convenient excuse to collect sizable donations from large companies. Case in point: Some critics question why schools use Windows when Linux technology--free software based on the Unix operating system--is readily available and arguably just as powerful.
"At almost all research universities in the U.S. and Canada, Unix has been the operating system of choice since the late '70s," said Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis and a longtime critic of corporate influence on education. "The bottom line is that universities tend to be very beholden to industry. To some extent, they are bought off."
And the industry's influence is not confined to higher education. Secondary and even grade schools have long been the target of companies offering equipment and services in hopes of eliciting future sales and long-term loyalty from students.
"Classroom teachers and decision makers are bombarded with wonderful solutions to everything you can imagine," U.S. Education Department Secretary Rod Paige, who served as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, said in a recent interview. "And they're glitzy and shiny, and they take you out to dinner and blow smoke at you and do all of that."
The empire and academia
While corporate ties can be found at all levels of education, they are particularly prominent at universities. Intel engineers work with students and professors at company-sponsored labs adjacent to college campuses, while the likes of IBM and Cisco Systems donate tens of millions of dollars a year for academic work ranging from semiconductors to genomic research.
But if technology philanthropy and research partnerships at schools reflect the corporate landscape, it should be no surprise that Microsoft is one of the industry's leading donors. Buildings named after company founder Bill Gates populate campuses across the country, from Stanford University to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Inside, research projects are often named after Microsoft initiatives and product lines such as .Net and Windows CE.
This airy new building replaced Sieg Hall, a cramped, decrepit structure that was literally falling down--prospective students were sometimes given pieces of the exterior, harvested from the ground as they fell, as souvenirs. The new classrooms are outfitted with computers that bear labels such as "Donated by Intel!" and use software given by Microsoft, Pixar and other companies.
"We've spent my entire 26 years here in a building that was falling down around our ears," said Ed Lazowska, who heads the university's computer department and holds a chair endowed by Gates. "We were on the verge of completely losing our competitiveness, because the field is changing. Ten years ago, we didn't do mobile robotics or real-time motion capture. You need labs for those, and we didn't have space to do that stuff in the old facility."
Besides, he and others say, use of popular technologies in the classroom helps students when they venture into the job market. A university decision to train undergraduates with Microsoft software such as Visual Basic Studio was made strictly out of practicality, Lazowska insists, not because of any financial incentives from the company.
"As soon as (Microsoft) tools became educationally as good as the other tools available, we switched because that allowed our students to gain summer employment that made them more successful," he said. "The last thing we would ever do is be pressured to use tools that weren't educationally acceptable."
In a perfect world, computing equipment and funding would come from such sources as student fees, government programs and alumni gifts, obviating the need for corporate reliance. But administrators say financial independence has been difficult to maintain as public and private funding has dropped precipitously in the last few years even as student fees have risen.
Educators agree that the use of particular equipment in schools inevitably pushes curricula and student interest toward projects that benefit corporate donors. To that end, competitors have long accused Microsoft of donating its products to keep competing technologies from gaining popularity among youths who will be future customers and businesspeople.
Apple Computer, which lost an overwhelming lead in the school technology market to rival computers that use Windows software, raised strong objections this year to a proposal that would have allowed Microsoft to donate PCs and software to schools as part of an antitrust settlement, contending that the plan would actually benefit the company.
Posing one of the most recent threats to Microsoft are so-called open-source technologies such as Linux and Sun Microsystems' OpenOffice, a free product based on code from the company's StarOffice software. In donating StarOffice to schools in Denmark earlier this year, Sun acknowledged that it was acting in part to counter similar moves by Microsoft.
The motivation behind technology donations is not lost on professors. "The companies know that it builds good relations and makes students accustomed to their equipment," said Anne-Louise Radimsky, a professor at California State University at Sacramento, citing computer labs at her school with equipment provided by Intel and Hewlett-Packard.
A long history of philanthropy
For all their controversy, corporate relationships with schools are nothing new. Bell Labs, Digital Equipment and other pioneers provided the hardware and software for the earliest research in university computer departments.
But companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and IBM are changing the industry's role in education, cultivating informal relationships with professors, and changing the character of research operations on campuses. Executives at these companies and others say such relationships are critical because they allow access to outside ideas and potential hires.
Most companies say much of their research funding goes to professors who already have ties to their employees, whether through previous projects, professional associations or earlier teacher-student relationships. Contacts also are established when in-house company researchers recommend collaborations with university faculty members who are doing promising work.
IBM remains one of the largest corporate donors in technology, providing more than $30 million in cash and equipment this year to research projects on everything from grid computing to molecular bioscience. Cisco, meanwhile, donates about $1.5 million a year through its University Research Program, including up to 25 percent for "risky" research and the remainder for projects that have "immediate product alignment within Cisco's business units."
Intel funds research into "new and novel uses" of its chip architectures, among many other projects. The chip giant recently has helped create a series of mini-labs located next to various universities, each focusing on a specific area such as networking or information storage.
Students work in these facilities under the guidance of Intel personnel, visiting faculty, and a lab chief who is typically a professor on leave of absence from regular duties. They often use advanced Intel equipment for projects, as was the case with one class that designed applications for a prototype mobile storage device provided by the company.
Yet universities vehemently deny that any of these arrangements present a conflict of interest that can compromise academic integrity. At Berkeley, Culler said Intel does not dictate what his lab does with any corporate agenda.
"We're not really interested in being in the role of being given homework problems," he said. "We're not an alternative development place."
Proponents of corporate programs note that the technology industry attaches relatively few strings to campus donations. Unlike pharmaceutical or biomedical research, where stories of suppressed research and delayed publication are widespread, computer companies tend to ask only for access to nonexclusive, sometimes royalty-free licenses to intellectual property that results from their research seed funding.
In addition, the amount of money high-tech corporations give directly to campuses is still small compared with what they spend on internal research, leaving the bulk of computer science education to be funded by federal budgets. According to the National Science Foundation, more than 67 percent of academic computer science research funding came from federal agencies in 1999, the last year for which statistics were available, with a focus on long-term and basic, noncommercial projects.
Paving the way for products?
Nevertheless, the amount of corporate giving can rise quickly as the current high-tech recovery escalates. And much research sponsored by the technology industry does go to projects that in some way feed demand for products or lay the groundwork for commercial uses.
After spending about $3.5 million on direct campus research funding last year, Microsoft recently helped support a host of programs that benefit technologies such as .Net and embedded computing. Projects include "Composing Web Sources Using a Scalable .Net Middleware," at the University of Southern California and "Accelerating Next-Generation Windows CE.Net Applications Using Run-Time Configurable Coprocessors" at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
The company also is touting a $25 million joint research project with MIT called iCampus, in which professors began looking into ways to integrate computer technology more deeply into classes and other instructional environments. Early results yielded ringing endorsements of Tablet PCs running Windows XP, one of Microsoft's key recent product lines.
"Businesses should not be policy-makers, but they are," Paige said. "Businesses are one of the most powerful forces in education now."
The solution, he and other educators say, is awareness of the relationships and rigorous self-policing by teachers, their departments and school administrators.
At the University of Washington, for instance, Lazowska has long been on the board of Microsoft's research arm and holds a chair endowed by Gates. Acknowledging that the positions could create the perception of bias, he makes sure that his colleagues are at least aware of that relationship.
"As department chair, if I start urging us toward Microsoft tools, people have to know my conflict," Lazowska said. "That allows them to listen really hard to my intellectual arguments."
The industry, for its part, says concerns over corporate influence are overblown for one simple reason: While valuable in the abstract, most academic work rarely produces anything remotely profitable, at least in the near term.
"When you think of a university and a software company, they're really two different things," said Doug Leland, former director of university relations at Microsoft. "Universities are great at doing research, but they're not great at doing products."
Even if they are largely beneficial, however, there is no denying that close corporate relationships are altering the direction of university research in fundamental ways.
"I think it has affected research in a big way," said Alan Shaw, an emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Washington, who has taught since the early 1970s. "It used to be that everyone was going after what seemed like the really big, long-term technical issues. It seems much more short-term now."