Campus News

‘We are not for sale:' Students say activism could save the Wisconsin Idea from Foxconn

Protestors are swiftly intercepted by campus security during a TAA demonstration against Foxconn at Union South last Friday. 

Less than a minute after student protesters draped their hand-painted banners over the second floor railing at Union South, campus security forced the small group to roll up its flags and issued some of the demonstrators warnings. 

There weren't very many people in the union at 8:45 a.m. that Friday morning to witness the brief display. But on the next floor, the UW System Board of Regents were beginning to file into to Varsity Hall for their February meeting. 

And while the students’ banners hung, their message was loud and clear: “No Foxconn at UW-Madison.”

The Board of Regents entered into a $100 million investment agreement with Foxconn last August. The deal will allow the Taiwanese tech giant to fund a new interdisciplinary research facility within the College of Engineering, which will house collaborations with the company's planned manufacturing complex in southeast Wisconsin. 

It was the largest private gift in the school’s history, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said at the time.

But the terms of the partnership have left many, including the Teaching Assistants Association, concerned that the deal could place the university’s intellectual property in the hands of a private company.

More, it fears that Foxconn’s presence on campus will run counter to UW-Madison’s legacy as a public land-grant university dedicated to excellence in research and public service.

“We want the Board of Regents to know that we know they are complicit in Foxconn’s involvement here,” said Sonali Gupta, a graduate student studying biophysics and a member of the TAA. “This is the privatization of a public institution and we are here to stop it.”

The agreement between Foxconn and the university describes three categories of research that could be generated at the Foxconn institute. The first type will produce intellectual property for the university, and the second will produce it for the company. 

The third type of research, which is classified as the institute’s “developed value” — research fully funded by Foxconn and undertaken with university partners — will produce intellectual property whose ownership must be negotiated between Foxconn and the school. Researchers themselves are excluded from negotiations.

University officials say they are comfortable with these terms.

“There are no restrictions on rights to publish and there is a framework to guide future discussions on specific intellectual property,” UW-Madison News and Media Relations Director Meredith McGlone said. “Nothing in the agreement supersedes the university’s existing policies and protections for faculty or student research.”  

While McGlone said that UW-Madison “must be able to benefit from new discoveries and any intellectual property that results,” the language of the current contract could still leave space for negotiation regarding ownership of the discoveries and techniques that will emerge from the new Foxconn institute.

Gupta sees room for the company to take advantage of work done by university researchers — part of a culture of corporate exploitation she thinks has already manifested itself in Foxconn’s rigorous on-campus efforts to recruit students.

It comes down to jobs, and the deal that brought Foxconn to Wisconsin in the first place.

In its initial agreement with the state — the one that resulted in a record-setting incentive package that could be worth upwards of $4 billion to the company — Foxconn pledged that it would create 13,000 jobs for state workers.

At the time, the bulk of those jobs were scheduled to be in manufacturing. But last month, Foxconn waffled back and forth on its original plan, saying for a time that its focus had shifted toward research and development and away from manufacturing. 

If it wishes to remain eligible for those incentives, Foxconn will still owe the state 13,000 jobs. And a move toward research could center its in-state hiring bottleneck over UW-Madison. 

The company has already established itself as a major recruiter on campus. Part of its deal with the university allows it to stage “Foxconn Days” outreach events at the College of Engineering, and it’s been no stranger at campus job fairs either. 

If graduating UW-Madison students could help meet Foxconn’s labor demands, the TAA believes those students may also have leverage in efforts to rein back the company’s presence on campus. 

“It’s absurd that the school would present a partnership with Foxconn as an opportunity for students when really it’s exploitation,” Gupta said. “This is one of those rare cases where student activism can actually have a lot of potency.”

Gupta emphasized that conditions in Chinese Foxconn plants are so hazardous employees have threatened mass suicide.

The TAA has actively worked to get its message to the students it believes Foxconn is targeting, but its efforts have been met with resistance from the university.

On Friday, protestors were asked to leave Union South because their presence was disruptive, according to Wisconsin Union Directorate officials. Later, UW-Madison Police issued two of the students warnings, noting that they were not in one of the designated spaces within and around the building where distributing pamphlets or engaging in similar activities is allowed.

“The Wisconsin Union is committed to fostering an environment of inquiry and expression while ensuring Wisconsin Union members' and guests' activities and events are not interrupted,” Wisconsin Union Communications Director Shauna Breneman said in an email. 

Liam Hutchinson, an Associate Research Specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was one of the demonstrators who received a warning. 

“As research staff, it feels undemocratic and inconsistent with the Wisconsin Idea for the administration to pursue corporate partnerships that threaten the rights of university researchers without their input,” he said. “The administration's preference toward the rights of corporations rather than the rights of students and workers is especially relevant in this case, because Foxconn's presence in Wisconsin is entirely predicated on political tactics that value corporate welfare over public welfare.”

Organizers were also met with pushback when they began distributing leaflets around Foxconn’s booth at a career fair held at the Kohl Center two weeks ago, where Gupta said security officials prevented them from distributing material.

When the deal with the school was first signed, the TAA responded by establishing a caucus on Foxconn within its organization. In the fall, it passed out leaflets at the College of Engineering’s Foxconn Days.

The TAA also submitted a statement and list of demands to the Board of Regents Friday.

Their demands included greater university transparency in future dealings with Foxconn — specifically, that all meetings be made public and that a graduate and undergraduate Associated Students of Madison representative and a faculty member be present at them.

“The lack of shared governance removes any element of choice; it forces us to be complicit in our own exploitation,” Gupta said. “If the university administration doesn't understand why shared governance is especially crucial for an issue like this, it clearly doesn't understand why shared governance exists in the first place.” 

The plea for shared governance comes less than a year after the UW System reaffirmed its commitment to the shared-government process, amid criticism for the way it had excluded faculty and students from UW System restructuring decisions.

Campus officials point to the fact that UW-Madison has many partnerships with businesses and industries in a wide range of fields, from agriculture to health to manufacturing. 

“These partnerships exemplify the Wisconsin Idea by allowing the people served by those industries to benefit from better goods and services,” McGlone said.

The Foxconn partnership is different, the TAA insists. 

A better partnership would be one that adhered to environmental standards, included real investment in the long-term health of the UW System and believed in basic standards of humane working conditions, it said. Moreso, those partnerships would be transparent, and initiated in open and democratic processes.

“The Foxconn agreement fulfills none of these basic standards inherent to a mutually valuable partnership,” Gupta said. “The Foxconn deal is not a partnership; it is parasitism.”  

The Foxconn partnership is also structured differently than many other sponsored research arrangements, since the university — and not the researchers themselves — manage intellectual property assignments.

In 2017, the university defined its policy on academia-industry research in a report issued by Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation administrators and other school officials. According to that document, as well as an earlier memo, the university itself generally does not assign the intellectual property rights for sponsored research contracts.

Nothing in the Foxconn deal supersedes existing policy, McGlone confirmed.

But while the policy leaves room for exceptions, the authors of the report say the standards it outlines have traditionally guided sponsored research agreements at the university.

“Some potential detrimental outcomes of assigning ownership of patentable intellectual property include severing the University inventors’ right to practice their assigned inventions in future research, which can be detrimental to their academic research careers,” the document stated.

The TAA’s demands also stipulate that the university return Foxconn’s $100 million gift, end recruitment arrangements and mandate that every corporate partner the university deals with comply with state and federal regulations. 

Neither the Board of Regents nor WARF could be reached for comment at the time this story was published.

While the TAA is frustrated with the vague answers it has received from the university and from the Board, it is also frustrated by the way campus officials have used the Wisconsin Idea to justify Foxconn’s presence at UW-Madison.

The TAA believes the agreement with Foxconn is designed to benefit the company more than the school or the state. Invoking the Wisconsin Idea both misrepresents the company’s intent and subverts the essence of the university’s grounding principles, since the Idea asserts that the school’s mission is to serve the state as a place where public resources are put toward the public good.

Foxconn’s involvement on campus satisfies neither of those conditions, the TAA said.

“We’re fighting for the culture of this campus and the Wisconsin Idea,” Gupta said. “We have an obligation to leave our institutions better than when we entered them.”

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