Earlier this year, in August, University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) chancellor Rebecca Blank announced a partnership with Foxconn chairman Terry Gou in what would be the “largest industry research partnership” in the history of the university, as reported by The Verge.
Foxconn, an electronics manufacturing company from Taiwan, manufactures all sorts of everyday products from gaming consoles to Apple devices. Now, the company is investing $100 million into UWM. The goal is to build a new research facility for the school’s College of Engineering.
A Merging Of The Ages
Blank commented on the merger, stating that “UW–Madison and Foxconn share a commitment to pushing the boundaries of knowledge through interdisciplinary research and we are deeply grateful for Chairman Gou’s support and partnership.”
The investment is thanks to Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker, who promised Foxconn a $4.1 billion immunity from environmental laws and “special treatment” from courts within the state.
However, the collaboration isn’t all positive. The College of Engineering Dean, Ian Robertson found that out during a town hall meeting last week. There, Robertson answered questions from graduate students regarding what exactly the partnership entails. One student, Sonali Gupta, revealed:
“We haven’t been told anything. We went to the town hall to get some answers and came away more confused.”
The two groups signed a memorandum of understanding last August, which clears up some questions upon examination. Entitled the Foxconn Institute for Research in Science and Technology (FIRST,) mostly Foxconn possessed buildings will take part. These will be in an industrial park near Madison’s campus. “Foxconn-sponsored” but UW-Madison owned buildings will be on campus as well.
However, it’s important to note that the memorandum of understanding is not legally binding. These specifics are not final, either. That said, graduate students fear that the process isn’t transparent. That and a lot of the memorandum’s data is “confidential”. This hidden information includes but is not limited to commercialization and the development of systems designs, and other plans.
Lacking In Clarity
Hridindu Roychowdhury, a grad student, claims that “a lot of the agreements are happening behind closed doors”. “We don’t have a say in it,” adds Delia Scoville, another student, “which is spelled out in the agreement”.
John Lucas, a spokesperson for UWM, claimed in an e-mail that the university “abides by the state’s open records laws”. According to him, that hasn’t changed for the Foxconn deal. In addition, the Wisconsin State Journal saw the memorandum of understanding after its signature. Because of this, students have been asking for additional pages, especially those regarding A.I. and the healthcare industry. Interestingly, some other documents discuss 5G, smart cities, and autonomous vehicles.
According to the University, the state cut $362 million from school support from 2012 to 2017. This is partly why the school accepted the Foxconn investment. Robertson even revealed this information during the town hall. The Foxconn partnership will prevent faculty loss and program cuts.
A “cooperation agreement” reveals three different “research rights” that could come from the deal. However, just one sends IP rights back to the school. The other two enable Foxconn full control of the rights. However, nobody knows what research falls under which agreement.
Taking Back Control
Gupta shared some fears regarding the lack of clarity:
“Right now, we have ownership of IP we generate. If graduate students are not at the table during (sic) negotiating process, are graduate students giving up ownership by working in the Foxconn building?”
Another student, Apoorv Saraogee, believes that the university will force students into sponsored programs due to lack of funding.
Lucas commented on these fears:
“Traditionally, UW-Madison does not give up ownership of IP in sponsored research agreements and UW-Madison does not claim ownership to the intellectual property of researchers. When there are legal obligations to sponsors with respect to IP (such as when federal funding is involved), UW-Madison does require researchers and/or students to assign their IP ownership rights to the University or its designee so that the University can meet its legal obligations.”
Regardless of the confusion, graduate students want control partnership. These students refuse to merely hand facilities over to a big company like Foxconn.