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MIT, Russia team up to open a graduate school

Government’s role in funding has some uneasy

“There is a tremendous amount of talent there,” says MIT’s president, Leo Rafael Reif.

“There is a tremendous amount of talent there,” says MIT’s president, Leo Rafael Reif.

During the Cold War, Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists produced ideas and inventions, such as distant early-warning radar and satellite-tracking systems, to help the United States prevail over the Soviet Union. Today, MIT is working with the Russians, not against them.

Just 12 miles from the Kremlin, rising from a field once used for agricultural experiments, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology will have a curriculum designed by MIT and financial backing from Russia’s government.

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The school — nicknamed Skoltech — will offer graduate degrees only and teach in English, serving as the centerpiece of a $2.7 billion innovation hub. Russian officials say they aim to create tech start-ups and lure corporate research laboratories with tax breaks and relaxed visas and customs regulations. IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Siemens AG have already agreed to locate there.

‘‘Russia has beautiful ideas but very poor commercialization,’’ said Viktor Vekselberg, the billionaire president of the Skolkovo Foundation, which is developing Skoltech.

Vekselberg earned a PhD in mathematics at the USSR Academy of Sciences before amassing a fortune in the oil and energy sectors that the Bloomberg Billionaires Index valued at $14.6 billion on April 15. ‘‘We are very concerned that Russia today is not able to create a serious pipeline of innovative projects,’’ he said.

The foundation says it has recruited 52 venture capital firms to the Skolkovo Innovation Centre, founded in 2010.

MIT, which already has programs in Abu Dhabi, China, Portugal, and Singapore, sees advantages as well. Skolkovo will give it access to the most promising scientists in a country where it has had little contact, said Leo Rafael Reif, MIT’s president.

‘MIT is lending legitimacy and a cloud of respectability to an undemocratic regime.’

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‘‘There is a tremendous amount of talent there,’’ Reif said. ‘‘It is really an incubator.’’

MIT is one of scores of US schools expanding around the globe. There were 83 international branch campuses of US universities as of March, not including partnerships such as MIT and Skolkovo’s, according to GlobalHigherEd.org, a website run by researchers at the State University of New York. That number has climbed from 10 in 1990, said Jason Lane, a SUNY Albany professor.

The result may be a higher-education bubble — with too few qualified or interested students — in regions such as the Middle East and China, said Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. He cited Michigan State University, which closed its undergraduate campus in Dubai in 2010 after failing to attract enough students. (It reopened with graduate programs in 2011.)

‘‘The US universities involved have come out with significant egg on their face,’’ he said.

There can also be pitfalls in countries that have different concepts of political and academic freedom. Yale University’s joint venture with the National University of Singapore, where classes are scheduled to start in August, led angry Yale faculty to pass a resolution urging the school to respect civil liberties.

Singapore’s government censors the media and uses the courts to silence criticism of the regime, according to Human Rights Watch. Yale-NUS has adopted policies of non-discrimination consistent with Yale’s and will protect freedom of expression, the college said in an e-mailed statement.

At Johns Hopkins University’s 27-year-old venture with Nanjing University, police monitor Internet use, said Jan Kiely, a former co-director of the campus.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s government has cracked down on critics, ranging from newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev to the punk rock group Pussy Riot.

Professors are also in jeopardy. Since 1998, more than a dozen Russian scientists have been arrested, most of them engaged in collaborations with foreign academics, said Igor Sutyagin, a London-based defense analyst and former researcher at Moscow’s Institute for the USA and Canada Studies who himself was jailed for 11 years. That should give MIT pause, he said.

‘‘They should know they risk their own people and they put in danger the Russians who work with them,’’ said Sutyagin, who said he was arrested for passing material about the Russian military that was in the public domain to a British firm that was accused of being a cover for US intelligence services.

He eventually signed a confession in order to be included in an exchange of spies and was released in 2010.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a member of the Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition and a Putin critic, said Skoltech merely serves as propaganda.

‘‘MIT is lending legitimacy and a cloud of respectability to an undemocratic regime,’’ Kara-Murza said. ‘‘They should fully understand what they are supporting and what they are doing.’’

While Russia still produces skilled graduates in math and science, its reputation for world-class research is poor. Until recently, faculty were rewarded for publishing in journals sponsored by their universities instead of international peer-reviewed publications, said Harley Balzer, a Georgetown University professor.

MIT’s involvement helped convince Yuri Shprits, a Russian-born geophysics researcher, to leave UCLA for a job at Skoltech.

‘‘The fact that MIT was behind this, that I found MIT faculty actively involved, is what gave me confidence,’’ said Shprits, a naturalized US citizen who studies the effects of the earth’s radiation belts on satellites. ‘‘It’s clear that it will be a top-ranked graduate school in Russia and we will be able to select the best graduates from Russian universities.’’

Since its founding in 1861, MIT faculty, staff, and alumni have won 78 Nobel Prizes. It’s one of the world’s richest universities, with an endowment worth more than $10 billion as of June 30.

When fully staffed, the school in Russia will teach more than 1,200 graduate students. A dozen of Skoltech’s first 20 students are spending a year at MIT in Cambridge while they wait for the Moscow campus to be completed.

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