November 25, 2012

Cornell Defends Plan for Tech Campus’ Corporate Ties

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Heralded as the 21st century’s revolution in higher education, CornellNYC Tech is predicted to unleash unheard-of synergies by bringing business and academia closer together than ever before.

Students will gain unprecedented real-world experiences. Professors will know the most pressing problems to tackle. And the economy of New York City — even that of the United States, some politicians have suggested — will benefit.

Still, for those grounded in more traditional conceptions of higher education, the partnership between private and public, for-profit and non-profit, may rest on uncertain terrain. In a series of interviews with The Sun, University administrators stressed the importance of maintaining the spirit of a land-grant institution as Cornell becomes increasingly entangled with some of the world’s largest multinational corporations.

“How are we going to deal with some very obvious conflicts of interest the closer we get to industry? It’s a huge concern. It’s a huge concern,” President David Skorton said.

Skorton stressed that the tech campus must make sure its “business relationships don’t affect the decisions in the University that ought to be based on just educational and research considerations.”

“Is there a teacher being motivated by the all mighty buck or motivated by things that are educational?” he said. “The closer you get to industry, the more you have to be vigilant.”

Questions about the influence of corporate interests are not new to academia. For instance, Stanford University, which had been widely considered the frontrunner for the tech campus before unexpectedly pulling out of the competition, has faced criticism for its cozy relationship with businesses in Silicon Valley.

“Corporate and government funding may warp research priorities” at Stanford, an article published in The New Yorker in April said. “Some ask whether Stanford has struck the right balance between commerce and learning, between the acquisition of skills to make it and intellectual discovery for its own sake.”

The article also quoted Prof. Emeritus David Kennedy, history, Stanford, who said the Bay Area’s fascination with industry poses drawbacks to the traditional university setting.

“It’s an atmosphere that can be toxic to the mission of the university as a place of refuge, contemplation and investigation for its own sake,” Kennedy told The New Yorker.

Cornell administrators, however, have emphasized that they believe certain firewalls will prevent conflicts of interest without undermining the partnerships’ potentially tremendous advantages.

For instance, unlike corporate employees, tech campus students doing work with a company for credit will have the “fundamental academic freedom” to discuss their projects, Tech Campus Dean Dan Huttenlocher said. While students may sign non-disclosure agreements with the companies they are working with, any work “done for academic purposes may not be kept confidential,” Huttenlocher said.

Under the tech campus’ planned mentorship program, each student will be paired with an industry mentor in addition to his or her academic adviser. Huttenlocher said the University will preserve the distinction between a student and an employee with guidelines for the program.

“There will be a whole set of rules around that kind of program, including what it means to be a mentor from that community,” Huttenlocher said. “We’re in the process of working that out before students arrive in January, and we may have to refine [the rules] as time goes on.”

The current rules that govern potential conflicts of interest at the Ithaca campus will also apply to the New York City campus, said Robert Buhrman Ph.D. ’73, senior vice provost for research and the University’s vice president for technology transfer, intellectual property and research policy.

“[The policies] for handling the intersection of personal interests and engagements with Cornell responsibilities and duties, including sponsored research, should not change and will not change from Ithaca to NYC tech,” Buhrman said in an email. “There may or may not be more relationships to manage, but the principles and methods of management will remain the same.”

Buhrman said that Cornell faculty and the University’s other academic hires confidentially report all “external financial interests … that might in some way be related to their Cornell duties and activities.”

“We are confident that with full reporting by our faculty and with proper [conflict of interest] management … we can successfully and properly oversee the active engagement of our faculty, staff and students at the NYC Tech campus with industry partners,” Buhrman said in an email.

One of those industry partners, Google, donated $10 million in real estate to house the nascent tech campus as its Roosevelt Island home is built. But despite Google’s multi-million dollar contribution to the tech campus, Skorton and other administrators said that the company will not benefit unfairly from tech campus products.

Google, for instance, will not have “first dibs” on intellectual property rights, Skorton said, pointing to Google’s long-term stake in the NYC tech scene and its philanthropic support for higher education as reasons why the company made such a large gift.

“Now, because they’re close by, they may get to know some of the students, students may get to know other people they’ll meet in the building, and in restaurants around there, and so on,” Skorton said.

Despite what he identified as a prevailing misconception, Huttenlocher said the tech campus will not be operating out of Google’s space.

“As much I might want to, it’s not like I can go eat in the Google cafeteria,” Huttenlocher said. “It’s not like them providing space will make us work less with Microsoft, Facebook or Intel.”

Original Author: Jeff Stein