I always get a little suspicious when some of the worlds richest executives, such as Bill Gates or Larry Ellison, take it upon themselves to donate millions of dollars to fund university research centers. The latest is Ellisons decision to fund, at either Harvard or Stanford University, a $150 million "politics, economics and technology" center to study the effects of each upon our culture.
Despite the goodwill attached to such contributions, as well as the opportunities they afford to students (not to mention the tax break gained by the philanthropists), theres my gnawing skepticism about ulterior motives for supporting universities—say, as a lever to gain commitments to deploy a companys software throughout the university or keep some other competing software vendor out.
Not that Microsoft and Oracle are the only major contributors. And not that educational institutions dont already rely heavily on computers and software, and Microsoft software in particular. But today, when Linux and open-source software give universities a more-than-viable option to less expensive and more reliable platforms, you have to do more than just wonder.
It doesnt stop there, however. In Ellisons case, the theme of his endeavor echoes all that he and Oracle have been preaching for years about how the Internet and server-based computing will enable new ways to run businesses, governments and personal lives. Now, it appears, he wants to spend $150 million on a university study that validates that vision.
Its the prerogative of the extremely wealthy, I guess, to put a stamp on the culture beyond what his or her business contributes to its shareholders or the economy. But precisely to Ellisons point, theres an undeniable crossover between technology and our culture already, one thats been there for years. The lines between technology and our lives are already blurred beyond distinction, and any study of that distinction is already affected by that paradigm. Save your millions, Larry, your point is made.