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Microsoft Institute of Technology?

It began last year with a ride to Logan Airport shared by Chuck Vest and Bill Gates. However, the deal forged between MIT and Microsoft may have crossed the line of what defines an acceptable collaboration between academia and industry.

The I-Campus project, a five-year, $25 million joint venture between the Institute and Microsoft Research, isn’t the first between Gates and MIT -- a previous $20 million donation to the Laboratory for Computer Science will help to build the William H. Gates building within the new Stata Complex. Nor is it the first time that MIT has sought out industry collaboration amidst a backdrop of a slow but steady decline in federal funding for scientific research -- Merrill Lynch, for example, invested $20 million in a new technical finance laboratory within the Sloan School of Management in March. Last month, DuPont and MIT announced an even larger investment -- $35 million -- into biochemistry research.

Yet the I-Campus project is more encompassing than either of those projects, as it has the potential to affect nearly every segment of campus and is, in general, not well defined beyond improving educational technology. According to the press release, the I-Campus project will “focus on methods and technologies that will enhance education on our campus and could set the pace for university education for the next five to ten years.” While the initial three projects of I-Campus are well defined, the long-term ramifications of this agreement may not even be known to those who negotiated it. Funding from industry should be attached to a specific, well-defined purpose, not to a set of amorphous buzzwords that could be interpreted in various ways.

The three MIT faculty members serving on the I-Campus steering committee must remain vigilant on issues of intellectual property throughout the life of this project, and must err on the side of free information exchange, not on the side of defending corporate interests.

Microsoft has a dubious history with regard to intellectual property. Through skillful negotiation, MIT has ensured that Microsoft will not have pre-review rights on publications resulting from this joint venture, and that professors can opt not to work on the project. Given the broad scope of the I-Campus project, those who oversee it must ensure that it does not merely become a method for Microsoft to obtain the resources of MIT faculty and students at low cost. Work conducted here must be for academic enhancement on this campus and elsewhere.

In order to endure, MIT has no choice but to form alliances with industry. Future partnerships, however, must be much more well defined than I-Campus, in order to remain within the bounds of acceptable academic-industry collaboration.