Auckland Uni gets well-endowed data chair

As tertiary institutions and the government practised some good old-fashioned brinkmanship over funding last week, one university and large technology company were engaged in a more modern, pragmatic ritual.

As tertiary institutions and the government practised some good old-fashioned brinkmanship over funding last week, one university and large technology company were engaged in a more modern, pragmatic ritual.

The University of Auckland and networking company Allied Telesyn were signing an agreement for the creation of a chair in data communications at an event in Old Government House. The occasion had all the stuffiness you’d associate with a university staff common room: wall-to-wall professors mingling with MPs and academic groupies, with a few bemused students dragged along to remind everyone what it was all for.

Into that assembly, described by one staff member as representing the sum total of the university’s intellectual capital, ventured four representatives of Allied Telesyn to do the deed. After the speech-making, the company’s chairman and founder, Takayoshi Oshima, and university vice-chancellor John Hood, penned the agreement which will lead to the appointment of a professor of data communications by the end of the year.

The Allied Telesyn endowment, the size of which is undisclosed but “substantial”, is one of several collaborations between IT companies and New Zealand tertiary institutions embarked on in the past year or so. Late last year Auckland University of Technology received the backing of Microsoft to create a chair in e-commerce; and Victoria University has created the Jade chair in e-commerce (constructed with the help of the Christchurch software company, not hewn from rock). Another kind of collaboration was illustrated by one of the students at last week’s Auckland event. She is working on a Telecom-sponsored PhD project, the aim of which is to develop a unified messaging system for a range of devices.

According to Hood, the University of Auckland is particularly keen on such partnerships and has a reputation for its willingness to work with private funders. That apparently explains why Auckland wins the Allied Telesyn endowment rather than Canterbury University, which shares the same home town as a large — and expanding — Allied Telesyn R&D facility.

The University of Auckland has a body, the partnership appeal board, whose aim is to sign up donors to just such collaborative efforts. Its head, Lyn Stevens (a QC, who quipped that the board wasn’t to be confused with the parole board), said the endowment was an example of the university “addressing in a concrete way” the creation of a knowledge economy. Many more such partnerships were needed, he said.

Lots of similar ones exist in non-IT faculties. There’s the New Zealand Forest Products lectureship in botany, for example, and the Comalco senior lectureship in materials science, not to mention the Masonic Lodge chair of geriatric medicine.

Allied Telesyn’s Oshima told the room full of dons how the birth of his company 15 years ago was proof that a viable business could be built on an idea and didn’t require pots of money. He raised an unintentional laugh when he said he’d got it off the ground with a mere $375,000 — “US dollars, that is” — probably not realising what a princely sum that sounded to his audience, whose masters were waiting to hear whether the government would up its offer of a 2.6% funding increase on last year.

What does this private largesse mean for the content of the courses the sponsored academics teach? According to the university, it won’t mean data communications students will be taught an Allied Telesyn version of the subject. Academics have the sole say on what they teach, says the university registrar. Which is just as well since, while a $US500 million company, Allied Telesyn doesn’t exactly dictate the standards of the networking world.

As sponsor, however, it does get to sit on the selection panel which makes a recommendation to the vice-chancellor about who should be appointed to the chair. Professor Oshima, perhaps?

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send email to Anthony Doesburg. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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