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Students Say MS Buys Curriculum
Friday, August 23 2002 @ 04:19 PM CST
Contributed by: Anonymous
Views:: 2,397
Education WATERLOO, Ontario -- Students at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, upset over a CN$2.3 million partnership fund from Microsoft Canada, have charged that the company is trying to buy its way into the academic curriculum.,1383,54601,00.html


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Re: Students Say MS Buys Curriculum
Authored by: mskala on Saturday, August 24 2002 @ 08:12 AM CST

I''m a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, so I think that makes me a good person to comment on this. First of all, I''d like everyone to understand that this deal was made with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, not the School of Computer Science.

I''ve heard a lot of people making noises about the evil encroachment on Waterloo''s (very prestigious) Computer Science program, and that worries me because it means the degree I''m earning has lost value when we had nothing to do with it. I don''t want to go to an employer and say, "I have a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Waterloo!" and be asked "Oh, you mean an MCSE?". That would be especially unfair because the Comp Sci curriculum committee considered and rejected a C# curriculum proposal from Microsoft.

Of course, more generally, it doesn''t really matter what department or school made the decision; the issues are substantially the same for any academic unit. I describe the issues in some detail in my 15 August Web log posting, but I''ve thought about them more since and I think the comments below may state my view even more clearly.

I think there are three significant issues, and most of the discussion I''ve heard has mixed them together inappropriately. I think it would be better if we could separate these three questions out, because that would allow us to talk more intelligently about all of them.

1: Would it ever be okay for an academic institution to have a required C# course?

I''ve heard people claim that it wouldn''t. I''ve heard people claim that it''s a University''s duty to promote Free Software. I have a friend who''s preparing to enter an undergrad program and told me that he would never attend a University that required him to use non-Free software. I''m sorry, but I just don''t find that point of view convincing at all. The University doesn''t exist to promote any ideology, even one I happen to agree with; promoting ideologies as a matter of policy is exactly what Universities are not all about. If the people in charge of making academic decisions believe that C# is the right thing to teach, then they ought to teach it and even require it.

Here''s an analogy: suppose you''re a Vegan and object to dissecting dead animals. Well, in order to get a Biology degree you may have to do that. Does the University have a duty to provide you with a no-dissection Biology degree program? I don''t think so. If it''s a legitimate requirement for the degree, required for sensible academic reasons, and you don''t want to do it, fine, but don''t expect them to water down the degree requirements to accomodate your ideology. I think it''s a no-brainer that C# is within the range of things that the University could ever be allowed to require.

2: Given that it could conceivably be okay to ever require C#, is it academically appropriate in this particular case?

I think that one is less clear, because all the advantages I can see for C# apply equally well to Java, and Java has additional advantages not shared by C#. However, I don''t know all the considerations before E&CE, and I''m willing to trust the decision made by the people in charge there. I think they''re competant; and (although this may seem shocking to Comp Sci students like myself) I think there''s a lot of call from first-year students of "Give us job skills that will look good on our résumés!", and I think some people who are heavily into the Microsoft world would think that C# would look good on a resume. So the bottom line for question 2 is: I don''t think it was the decision I would have made, but I also don''t think I can honestly claim that I know it was the Wrong Decision. I don''t think it''s a big problem; we live with other program requirements that are more questionable.

3: Was it okay for them to make this decision under these particular circumstances, which look like Microsoft buying its way into the curriculum?

As I see it, this point is the only important one. The circumstances sure do look like Microsoft buying its way into the curriculum, and that''s a big problem. It doesn''t even matter whether there''s genuine corruption going on; I''m willing to believe that there is none. I''ve met some of the decision makers involved here, I think they''re scrupulous about avoiding unethical decisions, I don''t think they allowed themselves to be swayed. But it looks bad. And that''s a problem.

It''s a problem because it brings the entire system into disrepute. I''m supposed to be able to take my degree anywhere and use it as proof that I''m one of the best people in the field. My degree is supposed to say, hey, a whole lot of really smart people with reputations for making good academic decisions have put together a program for training the very best computer scientists and they''ve agreed that I''ve completed that program. So look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! That''s how it''s supposed to work.

If Microsoft can buy its way into the UWaterloo curriculum, then my UWaterloo degree starts to look like a high school graduation certificate from one of those U.S. schools with the required units about Coke or Pepsi: a much less prestigious document. As we''ve seen in the comments on Slashdot, where some employers were saying "Well, I''m not going to hire another UWaterloo Comp Sci grad!", it''s hurting me even though I''m not even a student in the department that made the decision!

Then someone throws the system into disrepute, they''re hurting everyone else in the system including me. It''s not something we should ignore. That''s also why I''m so hard on people who plagiarise - they are making me look bad; if other people can get a degree by cheating, then my legitimate degree loses value. The bottom line for question 3 is that even if E&CE could legitimately make this decision under other circumstances, they had no business making and announcing it at the same time they accepted a whole lot of money from Microsoft. They should be reprimanded for doing that.

Now, what''s going to be done about it? I''m not sure. From the Wired article it''s apparent that E&CE is already trying to softpedal the decision, with their claim that well, they don''t really know that it''ll be a required course after all... That''s certainly a change from the earlier position; when it was announced there was no question that it would be a required course.

There''s been a lot of discussion among Computer Science folks at UWaterloo. Unfortunately, they''ve gotten bogged down in newsgroup flame wars on points 1 and 2 of the above list: would it ever be okay to require C#, and it it okay to require C# in the present academic context? And I think those questions are simply not important.

But I''m heartened by the fact that the Federation of Students is taking a position. That''s what student societies are supposed to be all about. Also, I''d just like to remind everyone that there''s a really strong Free Software presence among Computer Science students and faculty. We do our teaching computing almost exclusively in various Unix flavours including Linux. The Computer Science Club hands out free Linux disks. There''s no way students or faculty in Computer Science would knuckle under to Microsoft domination; and this episode involving E&CE will only strengthen that.

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