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'Cost sharing' of researchers between UW-Madison and Foxconn is a possibility

'Cost sharing' of researchers between UW-Madison and Foxconn is a possibility

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Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, left, and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank before signing a Declaration of Collaboration agreement last month, establishing what Blank says will be the university's largest research partnership.

UW-Madison’s College of Engineering and Foxconn Technology Group aim to open an interdisciplinary institute near the Racine-based manufacturing campus by 2020 with a minimum of 100 researchers, some of whom may be paid by the university.

Those new details, noted in the university’s agreements with the company and obtained through the state’s open-records law by the Wisconsin State Journal, build on last month’s announcement of the largest research partnership in UW-Madison’s history. Foxconn pledged to provide up to a $100 million matching gift to the university that will help fund a new building for the College of Engineering.

The agreements show the parties have agreed “to discuss cost sharing to bring on new faculty members” to staff the Foxconn Institute for Research in Science and Technology, or FIRST, which will be built near Racine and serve as a technological hub for initiatives in medical, materials and data science.

The parties will “work together to identify and employ” FIRST’s executive director.

UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas clarified that the director will be a Foxconn employee who may have an adjunct appointment within the College of Engineering, in which case it would be unpaid.

The agreement does not specify that the appointment is unpaid.

The College of Engineering’s agreement with Foxconn, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, is not contractually binding — except that it is subject to the confidentiality obligations laid out in the university’s non-disclosure agreement with Foxconn.

An emphasis on confidentiality

On the same day the College of Engineering signed its agreement with Foxconn, the Taiwanese company also entered into a “master cooperation agreement” with the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents working on behalf of UW-Madison.

That agreement lays out how Wisconsin’s flagship university will collaborate with the company. UW-Madison and Foxconn will each appoint three representatives to a steering committee that will oversee their general partnership and meet at least twice annually.

Members will be selected when FIRST launches, Lucas said.

UW-Madison officials said they do not believe the committee is subject to Wisconsin’s open meetings law. Whether the committee is subject to the state’s open records law depends on if committee members are holding university records, officials said.

“It’s confidential to the extent they can keep it confidential,” said April Barker, an attorney specializing in Wisconsin open records cases.

The university and Foxconn also must mutually agree on the content of “any publicity, press releases and other public statements,” under the agreement’s terms.

Just how much of the work between the state’s largest public university and the private company will remain secret?

“Any financial, legal or business information or any technical information” provided from one party to another “that is tangible or intangible, oral or written, however stored, compiled or memorized, will be considered confidential and proprietary,” the agreement reads.

Confidential information is considered the property of the party providing the information, which can request the party receiving the information to return or destroy the information within five days.

The language is consistent with what the university has negotiated with other private entities, Lucas said, though officials were unable Wednesday to offer an example of one.

“UW-Madison works with industry partners on a regular basis in similar ways to conduct research and advance knowledge,” he said. “Though every agreement is slightly different after negotiations, the language embodies the core concepts we use with all of our sponsors.”

Robert Schlaeger, special assistant to the Foxconn director of U.S. strategic initiatives, said in a statement that confidentiality provisions are needed “to protect the viability of exchanging confidential technical, scholastic and novel ideas in the course of research, prior to filing for patent disclosures and applications.”

Concerns raised

The agreement between UW-Madison and Foxconn worries the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the university’s union for teacher’s assistants and graduate students.

According to the TAA, the sharing of intellectual property rights endangers two of the university’s cornerstones: academic freedom and the Wisconsin Idea.

“The fruits of research at UW belong to the people of Wisconsin, not to a private corporation,” the TAA said in a statement.

Their concerns echo Democrats who have criticized the firm’s track record, the project’s environmental impact and the extent of public investment in a private company. Wisconsin offered Foxconn the largest tax break to a foreign company in U.S. history in order to lure the Taiwanese manufacturing firm to build its first North American plant in southeastern Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans have heralded Foxconn as an economic engine that may employ up to 13,000 people. They point to the company’s partnerships with universities as another offshoot benefit to the state.


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