University of Waterloo Embroiled in Microsoft Controversy

An agreement between Microsoft Canada and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, has erupted into outright controversy; students and faculty charge that university officials changed to a pro-Microsoft curriculum in return for financial compensation (to the tune of $2.5 million over 5 years). Under terms of the agreement, starting with one class this fall and with more to come with each successive semester, the university will begin teaching students C#, the computer programming language that Microsoft developed to take advantage of its Microsoft .NET technologies. Critics allege that the university deal essentially trains future programmers to work with Microsoft's tools and technology, creating a free developer base for the company. This criticism led the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo to demand that the university senate review the $2.3 million deal before the university makes any curriculum changes.

"We have concerns that Microsoft will be funding curriculum development," said faculty association President Catherine Schryer. "Consequently, we are requesting that the issues involved in this funding announcement be placed early on the next senate agenda."

After the initial furor over the deal subsided, however, the real debate began. What if C# takes off, some people asked, and becomes a popular way to write computer software? In such a case, the University of Waterloo would be seen as a cutting-edge institution. Of course, if C# fails to gain momentum, adopting the language would be akin to adopting failed technologies of the past, such as NeXT Computer's infamous cube PCs of the early 1990s--an embarrassing mistake.

The debate over Microsoft's sponsorship comes down to a sense of impropriety, although such financial gifts are common in the cash-strapped academic world. Some people involved in the decision-making process are cautioning common sense. University of Waterloo's Vice President, Academic and Provost Amit Chakma told a Waterloo-area newspaper recently that the institution should ignore the financial contribution when debating C#'s merits. But with the controversy a major news item in Ontario, common sense might not prevail. The Microsoft sponsorship and resulting C# curriculum changes are heading toward an unprecedented eight university committees, which will pass their recommendations to the university senate. The senate will then decide whether to make the changes.

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