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