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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2002

Microsoft Partnership Under Fire

A partnership announced last month between Microsoft Canada and the University of Waterloo has unleashed a torrent of criticism from students and faculty.

In a letter to university president David Johnston, the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo called for the deal to be thoroughly examined by the senate before being finalized.

"We have concerns that Microsoft will be funding curriculum development," faculty association president Catherine Schryer stated. "Consequently we are requesting that the issues involved in this funding announcement be placed early on the next senate agenda. In our view, a full airing of these issues and clarification of the role of Microsoft would be in everyone's best interests."

Under the sponsorship deal, the university will receive $2.3 million over five years from the Microsoft Academic Innovation Alliance to fund teaching and research programs. In return, the university must use a new Microsoft programming language called Visual C# (sharp) as the primary component of the university's first-year computer programming course. As well, all high school students admitted to the electrical and computer engineering program will have to take an on-line introductory course in Microsoft's language.

"Our concerns stem from the possibility that the established procedure for ensuring effective curriculum might have been circumvented; that the academic freedom of the faculty members involved in teaching these courses could be compromised; that the curriculum in specific courses could be perceived as deriving from an external source; and that the university could be perceived as endorsing an external organization's products," Schryer said in her letter to Johnston.

Student groups have also questioned the deal and have asked for an open forum to debate their concerns.

"The partnership, coupled with the mandatory course changes, sets a dangerous precedent for the autonomy of the university over its own curriculum," the University of Waterloo Engineering Society said in a letter to university officials.

Microsoft's newest programming language was unveiled two years ago as a competitor to rival Sun Microsystems popular Java language. However, unlike Java which runs on all operating systems, C# is compatible only with Microsoft's platform.

"This is a very good deal for Microsoft," said one faculty member who spoke to the Bulletin on the condition of anonymity. "For relatively little money they can buy the good reputation of the University of Waterloo as the premier computing science school in the country to help them push C# as the new standard in programming."

University officials have received a flood of telephone calls and e-mails from students, faculty, alumni and others expressing concern about the impact of the partnership on the university's academic autonomy. In response, the university has posted details of the deal on its web site intended to answer criticism that the university's independence is for sale.

"We have a long and robust history of accepting funds and other resources from the corporate world and making good use of them, while continuing to assert our intellectual independence," the fact sheet states. "We will continue to do so."

The university also says that while C# will be the "primary vehicle" used in its first-year course, it will not be used exclusively.

Critics say there are still many questions to be answered.

"It's not an issue that's going away any time soon," Jeff Henry, vice-president of the engineering society, told the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.