Public universities and the private sector: whose knowledge?

March 19, 2008

UC Berkeley just announced that it will host yet another public-private research venture. This time, the “partners” are Intel and Microsoft, who have agreed to fund a $20 million parallel computing lab at UCB. This is small potatoes compared to the $500 million deal with BP that Berkeley landed in the fall, but the same problems and questions apply. The UC regents and the individual campus units continue the trend of depending on the private sector for a larger and larger portion of their annual operating expenses without engaging in a serious public debate about the issues this raises.

The biggest concerns that the website and all the happy press releases don’t say anything about are (1) the governance arrangement of the center, and (2) the status of the intellectual property the new center will create. It’s all fine and good that the University gets to say it has a new building and does cutting-edge stuff, but the concrete impact of these centers on the campus depends more on how they fit (or don’t) within the campus’ existing governing structure. Will the lab get to hire and fire new faculty? Who will make decisions about their tenure? How much teaching will they do? Who will pay their salaries? The IP-related questions only make matters more complicated. The revenue from any patents and products that emerge from the lab are likely to exceed the value of the lab itself several times over. Who gets to keep that? Also, irrespective of the answer to that question, should a supposedly public university contribute to the enclosure of scientific knowledge?

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