Concerns over CMI initiative

March 31, 2000

Cambridge dons fear that their university's academic freedom could be stifled by state intervention and managerialism in the planned joint venture with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The university's governing council has conceded that "the political agenda is closer in the initiative than is normally the case with university funding".

In a Senate House debate on the initiative's framework agreement, dons voiced general but cautious support for the planned Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI). But there were concerns about the strings attached to the Pounds 68 million gift to the project, which was personally released by chancellor Gordon Brown, along with Pounds 16 million from UK industry, to entice MIT to Britain.

John Ffowcs Williams, Cambridge's longest-serving professor, who has worked in Cambridge, Massachusetts, warned of a threat to academic freedom and "the damage that can come to innovation when management interferes".

He said that he welcomed the concept and expected it to "become a focus for new good things". But he said that he saw his job as a senior Cambridge academic "to encourage colleagues to use their own judgement of what they should study and research".

He said that the CMI directorate, jointly appointed by Cambridge and MIT, should "be kept well away from interfering with academic enterprise".

"Government and industrial encouragement of research takes the form of investment that brings with it a tendency for investors to put strings on the money through which to steer and manage research," said Professor Ffowcs Williams, a professor of engineering. "I hope that this new initiative will be constructed in such a way as to minimise the involvement of investors".

He warned that a culture clash could diminish Cambridge's academic freedom. He said that there was a tendency at MIT to reward staff "according to what they can earn MIT rather than at a standard rate". Such a culture could threaten the "greater freedom" enjoyed by Cambridge academics to own the intellectual products of academic work.

"In this Cambridge, we value the fact that our university does not pry into our private professional affairs... Academic freedom is probably more important here and, as long as it is, it must be protected."

In response, the university's council said that it "understood" Professor Ffowcs Williams's concerns. But it said that the success of the venture depended on meeting "the legitimate concerns of government that significant sums of public money will be of additional economic benefit to the UK" as well as meeting the concern that there could be inappropriate bureaucratic constraints.

Professor Ffowcs Williams also complained that despite the fact that the plans are due to be set in motion in July, there was an "almost total absence of anything substantial in the information so far released to the university" and that this absence is "raising doubts about the wisdom of the proposal".

Council member Gill Evans said that the dons should not be expected to make decisions on the basis of a framework document lacking "vast tracts" of detail that would be "worked out by our political masters".

Cambridge said that details could not be worked out until there was a "structured agreement with the Office of Science and Technology", which will be distributing the public money.

Graduate student C. Baily said that the terms of the agreement, in which MIT will receive Pounds 50 million of the money, compared with just Pounds 34 million for Cambridge, "strongly favour MIT" and

that undergraduate programmes would be given a disproportionately higher priority than the graduate students.

Keith Glover, chairman of the council of the school of technology, welcomed the venture but warned that the total budget, when divided into "the many constituent parts, is not large". He said it was important to ensure that the CMI's mainstream activities were fully funded.

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