At the University of Wisconsin-Madison in late August, chancellor Rebecca Blank and Foxconn chairman Terry Gou announced the largest industry research partnership in the school’s history. The Taiwanese tech giant would invest $100 million in the school and help establish a new research facility for the College of Engineering. “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,” Blank said.
Last year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wooed Foxconn to the state with the promise of a $3 billion subsidy, which grew to $4.1 billion and included exemptions from environmental regulations, special treatment from state courts, and other enticements. But the company’s plans soon began to change. Foxconn now says it will build a far smaller factory, and most of the jobs will not be in manufacturing, but for knowledge workers creating an ecosystem the company calls “AI 8K+5G.” Amid doubts about the value of the Foxconn project, the University of Wisconsin partnership appeared to be a sign that the company would be a boon to the region.
Yet, on campus, the partnership has proven controversial. Last week, the dean of the College of Engineering, Ian Robertson, held a town hall and fielded pointed questions from graduate students who are concerned about the partnership’s implications for intellectual property and academic freedom as well as the opacity of the partnership overall. “We haven’t been told anything,” says graduate student Sonali Gupta. “We went to the town hall to get some answers and came away more confused.”
“We haven’t been told anything.”
The memorandum of understanding that was signed in August outlines the development of the Foxconn Institute for Research in Science and Technology (FIRST), which will be composed of Foxconn-owned buildings at the company’s industrial park near the Madison campus as well as “Foxconn-sponsored” but UW-Madison-owned facilities on the engineering campus.
The memorandum of understanding isn’t legally binding, and the details are likely still being worked out, but graduate researchers are concerned that the process isn’t transparent. The cooperation agreement lists a broad swath of information that’s considered confidential, from the terms of the agreement to the commercialization plans and strategies and the research and development work plans, systems, methods, and designs.
“A lot of the agreements are happening behind closed doors,” said grad student Hridindu Roychowdhury. “Which is spelled out in the agreement,” added Delia Scoville, a fellow grad student. “We don’t have a say in it.”
In an email, John Lucas, a spokesperson for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that the university abides by the state’s open records laws and has done so for requests related to Foxconn. The Wisconsin State Journal obtained the memorandum of understanding and cooperation agreement several weeks after they were signed, and students have requested and received several additional documents, including agreements relating to artificial intelligence in health care. Another document refers to autonomous vehicles, 5G networks, and smart cities as possible areas for collaboration.
“A lot of the agreements are happening behind closed doors.”
Corporate partnerships are an increasingly common way for universities to build new infrastructure, despite a lack of state funding. University of Wisconsin officials say state support was cut by $362 million between 2012 and 2017, and Robertson opened last week’s town hall by lamenting the budget shortfall. If the university didn’t see a change in funding, he said, it would have to start cutting programs and losing faculty.
But the partnership extends beyond the funding of new facilities to the funding of new faculty and the sharing of intellectual property. The cooperation agreement lists three different types of research agreements that might come from the partnership, and only one sends intellectual property rights fully back the university. The other two agreement types grant Foxconn the intellectual property that comes of research — either explicitly or through negotiations. It’s not clear how it will be decided what research falls into which category or how ownership will be negotiated, and researchers are concerned that they could find themselves in a situation where intellectual property arising from their work defaults to Foxconn.
The partnership includes the funding of new faculty and the sharing of intellectual property
“Right now, we have ownership of IP we generate,” says Gupta. “If graduate students are not at the table during negotiating process, are graduate students giving up ownership by working in the Foxconn building?”
“Sometimes you don’t have options and are put in a lab. What if that’s a Foxconn lab?” asks graduate student Apoorv Saraogee, envisioning a scenario where the university doesn’t have money in basic research and pushes students into sponsored programs.
In an email, Lucas said activities in the partnership “may require a mix of agreement types that will be considered on a case-by-case basis based on the scope of the activities, Foxconn’s expected level of oversight, and intellectual property rights.”
“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,” Lucas wrote. “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.”
“Sometimes you don’t have options and are put in a lab. What if that’s a Foxconn lab?”
Kali Murray, co-director of the intellectual property program at Marquette University Law School, says she can see why graduate students would be uncomfortable with the partnership, particularly given the ambiguity surrounding the hiring of new faculty. The memorandum of understanding says that “the parties strive to open FIRST by year 2020 with a minimum cohort of 100 researchers” and that “the parties agree to discuss cost sharing to bring on new faculty members to staff the cohort.” The agreement also says Foxconn and the university will “work together to identify and employ” an executive director for FIRST, whose responsibilities will include hiring staff, creating new research initiatives, and maintaining a graduate research program.
The ambiguity of the clause is unusual, Murray says, and it leaves open a number of possibilities with implications for intellectual property and academic freedom. “What does it mean to cost share with Foxconn? Does that make a faculty member in essence a joint appointment?” Murray asks. “They’re faculty of UW-Madison, but if Foxconn is paying 50 percent of their salary, in a dispute between Madison and Foxconn, who would be the employer in that situation?” She also wants to see clarifying language about how copyright will be handled to ensure researchers maintain the right to publish.
“Who would be the employer in that situation?”
Clarity will be especially important for graduate researchers, she says. “In essence, you work with the professor, so to the degree that your professor is working simultaneously both for UW-Madison and for Foxconn, it’s unclear what your employment status is. Things like academic freedom and copyright ownership can come into play at that moment, particularly for graduate students.”
During the town hall, Robertson said there wouldn’t be any faculty members who were doing exclusively work for hire research. Lucas, the university spokesperson, says the “most likely” form of Foxconn faculty funding “will be in the form of a contribution of start-up funds and/or named professorships,” and “the new faculty will be UW-Madison faculty members and therefore governed by the same IP processes and rules as our other faculty.” He also said that “the Board of Regents by policy requires the UW to retain ownership of research data and forbids research contracts that do not allow for publication of the research results.” He previously told the Wisconsin State Journal that FIRST’s executive director will be a Foxconn employee and that their faculty position will be unpaid.
“Its very opaqueness suggests that University is attempting to preserve significant flexibility.”
Murray also raised concerns about the relationship between funding and hiring decisions. The section on funding new faculty is opaque, Murray says, and “its very opaqueness suggests that University is attempting to preserve significant flexibility in how these individuals are hired.” The relationship isn’t necessarily wrong, she says, but given recent scandals around the influence of major donors on hiring decisions at George Mason University and elsewhere, the University of Wisconsin “needs to be more cautious and transparent on how this agreement is being structured around employment.”
As the partnership takes shape, graduate researchers plan to push for a greater role in the process, possibly developing a governance committee to advise the chancellor. Several have been handing out pamphlets at Foxconn events, which they say have become common on campus, and working with the graduate worker union. “We want to know that faculty and students have a seat at the table,” Gupta says, “and what deals the university signs before we get to that table.”