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Opinion: U of T should be wary of Huawei partnership

Chinese government’s influence on Huawei may put the university’s partnership at risk

Opinion: U of T should be wary of Huawei partnership

Lyndon B. Johnson, the cunning, calculating 36th US president, liked two things more than anything else: politics and money. Occasionally — and not without suspicion — his passions melded. In 1963, a Wall Street Journal reporter described these crossovers, writing that “like two young oaks springing up side by side, [Johnson’s] careers in government and business grew mightily—their trunks rising parallel and branches intertwining.” The problematic mix never got Johnson into too much trouble, but it did call into question his integrity as a leader.

For the University of Toronto, a leader in education and innovation with numerous business links, it was only a matter of time before it stumbled into a similar situation. That time seems to have come: the university’s partnership with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant at the centre of escalating tensions between China and Canada, is now of much greater significance — and controversy.

Three months ago, U of T renewed its five-year partnership with Huawei, with the company pledging further funds toward joint research initiatives. Since the original deal in 2016, Huawei has funded dozens of U of T projects, contributing roughly $3.5 million over the last two years.

In an interview with U of T News in October, U of T’s Vice-President Research and Innovation Vivek Goel said, “We’re pleased to extend this partnership. As a global institution, the University of Toronto enters into partnerships with a wide range of domestic and multinational companies in a bid to stay at the leading edge of research in Canada and around the world.”

In May, a Globe and Mail report revealed that, by contributing over $50 million to 13 research-heavy Canadian universities, Huawei has built “a steady pipeline of intellectual property” that the company is using to solidify its position in the 5G market. Over the last few years, “nearly 100 professors and graduate students worked on Huawei-funded projects,” and in many cases, “the academics, whose work is underwritten by Canadian taxpayers, assigned all intellectual property rights to Huawei.”

Even before the Canadian government’s detainment of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou or China’s subsequent detainment of three Canadian nationals, concerns arose that this back-and-forth may not merely be in the spirit of cooperation.

Speaking to the CBC in July, Toronto technology analyst Daniel Bader asserted that “Huawei poses a security threat because it is required to listen to and provide information to the Chinese government. All private companies are (required to do so) in China. Because of a history of cyber terrorism and espionage, there is concern that Huawei may be working on behalf of the Communist Party.”

In an interview with The Varsity, Lynette Ong, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, downplayed these suspicions. She wrote that although university research such as medical science or engineering is not as politically sensitive as military or finance-related research, it could still attract interest.

These notions are prominent south of the border as well. During the summer, American lawmakers asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to investigate Huawei’s investments in American universities, citing an intelligence report claiming that the company was funding research to scoop up foreign technology. Canada’s Five Eyes allies — Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US — have all put up barriers to halt Huawei’s 5G expansion.

In spite of these developments, U of T has been passive around its partnership with Huawei. Goel told The Varsity in October that the university’s partnership with Huawei is “as strong or stronger” than those with its other industry partners. In mid-December, he told the press that the university will “respect any direction it receives from the [Canadian] government.” But there’s reason to think that the university may have to be proactive in distancing itself from Huawei, and not simply wait for a call from Ottawa.

On December 12, the editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-run paper, The Global Times, posted a video in which he warned that “if Canada extradites Meng to the US, China’s revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian.”

Will the University of Toronto drift into the crosshairs? In an interview with The Varsity, Professor of Political Science Nelson Wiseman wrote, “The issue of the relationship of Canadian universities with Huawei is independent of [the current dispute.] It is related to the concerns of security officials, including former directors of [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service], that Huawei is a de facto agent of China’s security service.”

Ong agrees, writing that “the risk of the UofT being caught in the middle of the spat is very small.” However, she added that “the Chinese authorities are willing to go to great lengths to protect [Huawei]” and that the university “should wait to see the Canadian government’s position on Huawei 5G technology.”

“The Trudeau administration has not made its position clear on Huawei’s 5G network. Until the government does so, I see no reason why the UofT should change its mind about Huawei.”

Clearly, U of T is not in imminent danger. But the current climate is precarious, and vigilance pays dividends. U of T’s motto, “velut arbor aevo,” roughly translates to “may it grow as a tree through the ages.” As decades of development have shown, our foundation is strong, our connections myriad, and our growth boundless. We’ve joined arms with other universities, partnered with think tanks, and intertwined with powerful, multinational corporations. But with all the Huawei chaos whirling around, we’d be wise to stop, look around, and consider if any pesky, problematic branches need pruning.

U of T, MaRS to co-lease 24,000 square feet at the waterfront

Space in burgeoning innovation district will house startups

U of T, MaRS to co-lease 24,000 square feet at the waterfront

U of T has partnered with startup and research incubator MaRS to lease 24,000 square feet of the 400,000-square-foot Waterfront Innovation Centre (WIC), which is currently under construction. The leased space will allow U of T and MaRS to provide startups with office space to further the development of their businesses.

“I fully expect students from U of T will migrate to Waterfront, if that makes sense for them,” said Scott Mabury, U of T’s Vice-President of University Operations. “Given the breadth and diversity of ideas that are happening at the university, the diversity of innovation and discoveries that happen, I expect a quite broad and diverse set of occupants.”

The WIC is set to be constructed on Queen’s Quay East near Sugar Beach and is expected to open by 2021. According to Mabury, the lease is set to be finalized “any day now.”

The lease marks the second time that U of T and MaRS have partnered. U of T currently has a 20 per cent equity share and four floors in the MaRS Discovery District on College Street and University Avenue. The building is almost at peak capacity, meaning that new startups are being turned away on a “very frequent basis,” according to Mabury. The high demand for work space means that there is only a three per cent vacancy rate in the city.

The WIC lease, in addition to the 250,000-square-foot innovation centre that U of T is set to build across the street from the MaRS Discovery District, seeks to remedy this issue.

“MaRS is exceptionally good at helping companies get kicked off and nurturing their growth and business development system,” said Mabury. “Our interests really align with MaRS’ in being able to bring our influence in building the innovation ecosystem [at] the Waterfront.”

Mabury expects prospective startups at the WIC to have a “broader mandate” than just AI research and that they will likely be similar to those currently operating out of the MaRS Discovery District. Unlike the Discovery District however, this lease will not include lab space.

Mabury added that U of T and MaRS have the option of expanding their lease to 50,000 square feet in January. On U of T’s end, the decision on whether to expand or not will be determined by Mabury, Provost Cheryl Regehr, and President Meric Gertler.

“We will in the new year take stock of where we think the market is, where we think demand is,” said Mabury. “The announcement [of the initial lease] has led to lots of interest. We’ve heard from lots of folks who want to be in that [space]. So we’ll pull all that in and then in discussion with MaRS jointly decide whether we should expand.”

In a press release, Helen Burstyn, Chair of the Waterfront Toronto Board of Directors, wrote that the WIC will be “a dynamic space that [serves] as a catalyst for innovation, collaboration, and economic growth.” The WIC’s tenants will primarily be those in data-intensive industries.

The WIC’s location in the growing Waterfront innovation district, which will also host Alphabet Inc.’s digital technology neighbourhood Sidewalk Labs, is another significant boost for both U of T’s and MaRS’ research ambitions.

The WIC is projected to cost approximately $200 million, according to a Waterfront Toronto report. The specific financing details have not yet been revealed. Waterfront Toronto, one of the main stakeholders in the WIC deal, is an organization funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Ontario, and the City of Toronto to “transform [the] city’s waterfront by creating extraordinary new places to live, work, and play.”

The WIC is one of many initiatives associated with Waterfront Toronto’s goal of revitalization of Toronto’s lakeshore. Other projects include redesigning the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal and the redevelopment of Villiers Island near Toronto Harbour-Pier 35. The organization attempts to effectively develop Toronto’s lakeshore, aligning three levels of government with the local stakeholders. One possible result of this tri-level government collaboration is an extended public transportation stop adjacent to the WIC.

According to Menkes, the WIC’s developer, 60 per cent of the building has already been pre-leased. The WIC will consist of three central interconnected structures: the Hive, the Nexus, and the Exchange. The Hive, consisting of 37,000 square feet of floor space, will be the largest structure of the WIC. The Nexus is a public space connecting different parts of the building; the Exchange will be comprised of office and lab co-working spaces.

The WIC, designed by Sweeny &Co. Architects Inc., is expected to contain ultra-high-speed broadband internet and self-generating solar power functionality. It will be LEED Platinum certified. Sweeny &Co have also designed other buildings around Toronto, such as the Telus House in the Financial District and the Queen Richmond Centre West.

U of T commits $1.4 million to support students studying abroad

Agreement with Mitacs will foster international collaboration in academia

U of T commits $1.4 million to support students studying abroad

U of T has announced a $1.4 million partnership agreement with non-profit organization Mitacs to support global research opportunities for U of T students. The deal, spanning a three-year period, will primarily fund Mitacs’ Globalink Research Award program, which provides undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows with financial aid to conduct research at universities in 40 different countries.

With the expenses of studying abroad contributing to students’ reticence in opting into international experience, this partnership with Mitacs will allow up to 200 U of T students to apply for funding per year. At least 80 international students will also receive funding from Mitacs and U of T to conduct research in Toronto. With an equal division of financial dues among Mitacs and the partner university, the recipients of the awards — both inbound and outbound — will receive $6,000 each for 12-week or 24-week placements.  

Dr. Ridha Ben Mrad, a professor in the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering and Mitacs’ Chief Research Officer, said that Mitacs is a “bridge between the private sector and the university.”  

“This [new] deal with the U of T is more strategic in the sense that we are allocating a certain number of internships for University of Toronto’s students to go do internships outside of the country,” said Ben Mrad.

Internships abroad and exchange programs give students the opportunity to expand network connections, gain work experience in different cultures, and access new ideas and perspectives. The partner institutions that host these students get expertise in the field to help provide solutions to problems, said Ben Mrad.

“In the same token, U of T, being a global university, is able to attract researchers from outside. So this will pay for U of T students but the idea is that this will enable two-way mobility to U of T and from U of T,” he said.

Since starting its internship program in 2003, Mitacs has expanded its role in connecting academic research to the private sector in several educational disciplines. Of the 7,112 projects listed on its website, approximately 84 per cent are in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, while approximately 15 per cent are in the social sciences and humanities. 

Ben Mrad said that Mitacs is making “a substantial effort” to fund more non-STEM projects because “there is so much innovation to be done there.”

Much of the funding for Mitacs’ programs comes from Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada, a department of the Canadian government. ISED has provided around $56 million to Mitacs’ programs over a four-year period between 2012 and 2016, in which the Globalink program itself received close to $20 million. With additional financial contributions from the private sector, Mitacs has supported over 20,000 research internships since it was founded in 1999. 

As it continues to grow, Mitacs has set a goal of delivering over 10,000 internships annually by 2021–2022, with 2018–2019 projections at 8,190 showing promise toward that target.

To match the ambition of such goals, partnership agreements like this one with U of T are critical. According to Ben Mrad, the partnership will “enable U of T to develop strategic relationships, to choose where to send a good number of their researchers, [and] to establish strong relationships with one or multiple parties.”