UW Receives $50M Endowment, Names Computer Science School for Allen

The celebration marking 50 years of computer science education at the University of Washington went from a birthday party to a rechristening Thursday with the announcement of a $50 million endowment from Paul Allen and Microsoft.

The UW Board of Regents elevated the university’s computer science department to the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering—a move that provides this essential pillar of the tech industry in the Pacific Northwest with more autonomy, flexibility, and prominence.

The endowment, $40 million from Microsoft co-founder Allen and $10 million donated in his honor by Microsoft, is expected to provide investment earnings of about $2 million a year, in perpetuity, to support frontier-pushing research in the growing computer science school.

Allen has an estimated net worth of $19.9 billion—the majority of which he plans to donate as a Giving Pledge member. Though he never attended UW, Allen is already closely linked to the state’s flagship research university, and among its most generous donors.

His father, Kenneth Allen, was a UW librarian. A teenage Paul Allen prowled the UW campus seeking time on mainframe computers in the days before he and Bill Gates helped launch the personal computing era, building a software company that would forever change the world and the region. Allen contributed $14 million in a private fundraising campaign in the early 2000s to fund the current UW computer science building on campus, which also bears his name.

“There’s probably no institution that has had a greater influence on me than the University of Washington,” Allen, who dropped out of Washington State University, says in a prepared statement distributed by the UW. “I spent hour after hour in the University library devouring everything I could on the latest advances in computer science. And it was access to UW computers as a high school student that served as a springboard for the eventual launch of Microsoft.”

The UW came to Allen with the idea of naming the school after him, which he called “a great honor.”

“We are entering a new golden age of innovation in computer science, and UW students and faculty will be at its leading edge,” Allen says. “My hope is that the school will have the same influence on them as it did on me—that they will continue to dream big, breaking through technological barriers and using their skills to solve some of the biggest problems our world faces.”

The Allen endowment stands out in an academic world of strings-attached funding, where various streams of state, federal, corporate, and private cash flowing into the university can be used only for tightly defined purposes.

The endowment is expected to provide $2 million a year in flexible “seed funding” inside the school, which could be used to help a newly recruited faculty member set up her lab, before she begins bringing in federal grants; to finance the creation of interdisciplinary research centers; to allow a professor to chase a long-shot idea that’s too speculative to attract support from federal research sponsors; or to create fellowship and scholarship programs to win sought-after students and faculty.

There are some limitations on how the UW can spend the money. It cannot replace state funding for enrollment, even as the school seeks more support from the legislature to double the number of computer science undergraduate degrees it confers annually to more than 600. Nor can the endowment pay faculty salaries or pay for construction of the new computer science building, which began earlier this year and is set for completion in late 2018.

Allen, center, talks with Lazowska, right, and Hank Levy, director of the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Photo courtesy of the Paul G Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

UW computer science has come a long way from its beginnings in the basement of a mining building. One early professor complained of an “office … in a passageway between two doors, without windows, with a transparent pipe flushing water in front of my desk.” An annual party to welcome new graduate students was held in a demonstration pit mine.

The last 50 years has marked steady progress, punctuated by a handful of “step-function” changes, says Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering, who is marking 40 years on the faculty and has been instrumental in several of them.

The developments unfolding this year—construction of the new building, the endowment and closer association with Allen, and the “school” designation—comprise the biggest of those changes. They come as computer science is the university’s most sought-after undergraduate major and the tech industry drives Seattle’s economy like never before.

As a result, Lazowska says UW is poised to join the top echelon of U.S. academic computer science programs, on par with Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of California, Berkeley.

“Being named for Paul is a huge deal,” Lazowska says. “This is somebody who’s had a big impact on UW, on Seattle, on technology, and really on the world. So being the Paul G. Allen School is just worth an enormous amount in aspirational and reputational value.”

Allen’s wide-ranging business, scientific, and philanthropic activities include: redevelopment of the South Lake Union neighborhood over the last decade, transforming blocks of old warehouses and commercial laundries into an innovation district that is home to Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN); creation of local museums dedicated to pop and sci-fi culture, computer history, and aviation history, and institutes for cutting-edge research into cells, the brain, and artificial intelligence; funding global efforts to protect elephants and combat Ebola, among others; and, of course, owning the Pacific Northwest’s beloved professional sports franchises, the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers. (He also co-owns the Seattle Sounders.)

None of it would have been possible without the success of Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT). And you could argue that Microsoft might not have come into being—or might not have wound up in this region—if Allen and Gates had not had access to computing resources at the UW (nevermind that neither was a UW student). A UW marketing slogan in the late 1970s was, “You’re getting something out of it whether you go there or not.”

UW’s computer science program began as a “group” in 1967, when the UW Regents established a graduate program. It became a department in 1974 and began an undergraduate major in 1975. It became a unit of the College of Arts & Sciences in 1979, then joined the College of Engineering in 1989.

The academic designation as a “school” unto itself—on equal footing with schools of medicine, law, business, information, and some eight others at the UW—is a recognition of the size, impact, and interdisciplinary nature of the education and research work happening in computer science. Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, and Cornell are examples of other universities with computer science schools.

“It gives us visibility and prominence both within the university and nationally,” Lazowska says. “It speaks to the role that computer science has in the modern university and the modern world.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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