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USA: Microsoft's Big Role on Campus

Donations Fund Research, Build Long-Term Connections

by Ariana Eunjung ChaWashington Post
August 25th, 2003

REDMOND, Wash. -- Bearing gifts of cash, software and computers worth $25 million, Microsoft Corp. came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999, saying it wanted to jointly develop educational technologies. Some scholars expressed more suspicion than gratitude.

At a celebration to kick off the collaboration, students and faculty members heckled the speakers, insisting the computer company's software wasn't worthy of use or study at MIT. Some took boxes of Microsoft's Office 2000 software and stomped on them. An editorial in the school newspaper wondered: Had the school sold itself out to become the "Microsoft Institute of Technology?"

Today, four years into the five-year partnership, the protests are over and Microsoft technology is firmly entrenched at MIT.

Aeronautical design classes now use Microsoft's Flight Simulator computer program. Electrical engineering and computer science professors are putting their courses online using Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation software. The university's educational computer network is being overhauled to use Microsoft's .Net architecture. Video games, hardly an MIT priority but a strong commercial interest of Microsoft's, have suddenly become a subject of scholarly inquiry.

Similar transformations are taking place at university campuses across the nation, escalating the debate over corporate influence on academia. Such concerns about donations have been raised in fields of study as diverse as auto engineering and medicine, but Microsoft's donations are a special case. Because students are likely to keep using the technology after graduation, they help to maintain Microsoft's software industry dominance.

"Universities have become much more open to corporate donations even when they have strings attached, and they are less likely today to assess the long-term impact of these donations on academic freedom," said Lawrence C. Soley, a professor at Marquette University and author of "Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia."

Donations to 1,000 Schools

Microsoft has lavished $500 million over the past five years on research and teaching projects at 1,000 schools, funding efforts by 6,000 academics in computer science, electrical engineering, linguistics, biology, mathematics, graphic arts, music and other fields. Microsoft partners are among computer science's biggest luminaries: A. Richard Newton, dean of the engineering school at the University of California at Berkeley; Eugene H. Spafford, who runs Purdue University's influential cybersecurity institute; and Gail E. Kaiser, a Columbia University researcher who is one of the nation's most prominent software engineering experts and one of the few tenured female professors in the field.

The software giant's donations have allowed universities to follow through on projects they could not have otherwise dreamed of, given their limited research budgets. The collaborations have not only led to new products on store shelves but work dominating academic journals focused on high-tech innovation.

The corporation, however, has also directly or indirectly influenced curriculums and research priorities, drawing an outcry from critics who say the donations are turning computer science departments into vocational schools where mastery of proprietary computer programs are valued over the study of theory.

Hal Abelson, a computer science professor who co-directs the MIT-Microsoft partnership, said the donations have allowed MIT to make class readings and other material freely available on the Web, benefiting not only the school community but the world at large.

"That is not distorting the research agenda, but doing things we otherwise might not have," he said.

Microsoft, for its part, acknowledges that its donations are about business development as well as philanthropy, but that it is a win-win situation for everyone.

"The success of the field comes from innovations through university environment," said Rick Rashid, Microsoft's senior vice president for research. "Microsoft prospers when universities prosper."

Still, others lament that even if everyone has the best of intentions, the end result portends a future when innovation in the field of computers will be greatly influenced, if not controlled, by a single company.

"[I worry] that in the face of budget shortfalls, universities will sacrifice their research autonomy, offering up curriculum and academic integrity to the highest bidder," said Mark Schaan, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University who was part of a group of students at the University of Waterloo, the Canadian equivalent of MIT, who last year urged administrators to turn down Microsoft's donations.

Project 42 Sets the Tone

Microsoft first began to reach out to universities in a serious way in the mid-1990s with Project 42.

At the time, Microsoft software was dismissed as too clunky, too slow, too unreliable and too uncool among many researchers on the cutting edge of technology. Microsoft was seen as an imitator and not an innovator -- it created the Windows operating system based on Apple Computer Inc.'s graphical interface, the Internet Explorer browser for the Web based on Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator. The dot-com upstarts fueling the boom, more than a few predicted, would soon be in a position to out-innovate the aging software maker.

Microsoft's salvation: Project 42, named after the mysterious response the supercomputer in Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" gives when asked for the meaning of life. Later unveiled as .Net, Project 42 was a set of software tools that would allow disparate systems to communicate more effectively across the Internet -- and to keep Microsoft relevant in a world where PCs were no longer the center of the computing universe.

The company concluded that to make .Net a success, it had to get academics involved. Not only would their imprimatur lend credibility to the technology, Microsoft would benefit from their technical expertise. In 1998, the company began to quietly fly academics to its headquarters for previews of the technology. Damien Watkins, then a lecturer at Monash University in Australia, recalled that some of his peers wore Linux T-shirts to show their skepticism. In the end, though, they were won over in part by the promise of the technology -- and by a $150,000 donation the company made to the university, he said.

"I think Microsoft has changed a lot over the last five to 10 years. Setting up Microsoft Research and working with university faculty is a sign that they are looking a lot further into the future than they had done previously," said Watkins, who was so impressed with .Net technology that he began teaching it to his students, then founded a private firm that uses .Net technologies. He is now applying for a job at Microsoft.

Today, more than 2,000 professors from top-tier schools are considered close collaborators with Microsoft, accepting cash, software, hardware or other in-kind donations from the company for specific research projects or classes. An additional 4,000 have less formal relationships with the company but still receive free equipment and support.

Microsoft's total research and development budget -- $4.7 billion in 2003, $4.3 billion in 2002 and $4.4 billion in 2001 -- is estimated to be more than all the rest of the software industry spends together. Each year, Microsoft gives away about $100 million of that to universities.

In comparison, according to the National Science Foundation, computer science department expenditures at all universities and colleges from all sources for 2001 was less than $1 billion.

The collaborations have resulted in refinements in handwriting recognition, better ways to compress music and video files for electronic transmission, and new theories about how to better search the Web. Microsoft researchers and their partners now produce about 120 papers in 20 journals per year, a relatively large number. In 2001, for instance, 30 percent of the papers presented at the influential Conference on Programming Language Design and Implementation meeting were by Microsoft researchers. At this year's SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference, some 14 percent were Microsoft works.

Among those who say they have benefited from Microsoft's donations is Howard University associate professor Todd E. Shurn. Two years ago, he was struggling with how to best teach a multimedia class that would combine computer science, art and communications skills.

Two of Shurn's former students, who had gone on to work at Microsoft and had come back to Washington on a recruiting visit, had an idea: Why not build the class around Windows Media Player? The class could create a new interface, or "skin," for the program. The professor was intrigued. He fiddled around with the technology for a few days and concluded it was worth testing. Microsoft provided $5,000, software and books and sent one of its technicians to help set up the computers the students would be using. The experiment was a success, Shurn said, so much so that he expanded the project the next year to include a contest open to the entire school. Microsoft, of course, provided the money for the awards.

Shurn estimates that when he first started at Howard a decade ago, nearly all computer-oriented projects involved machines running Unix-based operating systems. Now, he said, about 80 percent of assignments rely on Microsoft Windows.

"Our migration toward Microsoft began because of pricing and then, as a result of Microsoft becoming very active on campus, it accelerated," Shurn said.

Thanks, But No Thanks

Microsoft's efforts to reach out to some other universities, however, have not gone as smoothly.

California State University students and faculty urged administrators in 1997 to turn down a $300 million gift from Microsoft and three other companies because it required an exclusive contract for upgrading the computer and phone system at the 22 campuses. At the University of Michigan in 1999, after administrators signed a deal with Microsoft, a major donor, to sell technology at the Michigan Student Union, students protested by handing out diskettes with the free Windows alternative Linux.

And at the University of Waterloo last year, administrators announced a $1.6 million donation from Microsoft. At the same time they announced they would change the curriculum to introduce Microsoft's C# programming language into the first-year programming course instead of the more popular and long-established C++ they were currently using. Students and faculty rebelled.

The university ultimately backed down this spring, saying for now the classes will be "multilingual." A faculty senate is evaluating the proposed curriculum changes.

Doug Leland, head of university relations for Microsoft, said there is often some hostility when company representatives first step on college campuses. There is "a deep level of the unknown," he said. But, he said, the "attitude of campuses towards Microsoft has changed dramatically in the past few years."

"We've really broken through a lot of those trust and credibility issues," he said.

One way Microsoft has done that is by offering some gifts with no strings attached or by allowing academics to have a great deal of freedom with the money they are given.

The MIT partnership, which runs from 1999 to 2004 and is designed to develop educational technologies in an initiative called "iCampus," is the company's showcase example. Even though the projects must be approved by a six-member committee, half of whom are MIT employees and half of whom are Microsoft employees, the academics own the intellectual property developed and have the freedom to publish what they wish without a review from Microsoft. Professors also have the option not to participate in the Microsoft collaboration.

An MIT contingent of professors, led by Abelson, were among 350 faculty members who attended a recent gathering of Microsoft academic partners at the company's headquarters here in Washington. At the three-day, expenses-paid event, the professors stayed at the Hyatt Regency, dined with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates on tables decorated with fresh peach lilies, and took boat cruise on Lake Washington.

It was part academic conference, part networking event. It was also a unique promotional opportunity for Microsoft.

At a question-and-answer session between the academics and Gates, one professor asked the Microsoft founder about his views about the study of information technology, a part of computer science that emphasizes on how documents, spreadsheets and other data should be handled. What kinds of technologies should students majoring in this subject be taught?

Gates replied quickly and with a smile: "Microsoft Office."





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