Microsoft Pledges $10M for New UW Computer Science Building

The University of Washington’s plans for a new computer science building to accommodate surging interest from students—and the tech company employers who would hire them—is getting a $10 million boost from Microsoft.

The Redmond, WA, company synonymous with the state’s tech industry pledged the cash to kick off a private fundraising campaign whose target would be about $78 million. That’s assuming the Washington Legislature delivers the public portion of the roughly $110 million project.

“We hope by making this contribution not only to help jump start this fundraising effort, but do so in a way that encourages and perhaps even inspires others,” said Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith. “We need the state of Washington to move forward and make its contribution. That’s one of the most important contributions that can be made, given that this is a state institution. And the Legislature is going to be making its final decision over the course of the next few weeks. We hope that other individuals and companies and foundations will consider getting involved.”

The donation comes as lawmakers in Olympia struggle to pass a budget with increased funding for education at the K-12 level, and as Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill (PDF) this week aimed at increasing computer science education. “This law is a step forward to help close the computer science skills gap, which means more opportunities for our students and our state—a top priority of my Administration,” Inslee said in a statement.

That’s just one factor that could help channel more students—including underrepresented groups—toward computer science. But at the state’s premier computer science program, two-thirds of qualified students are turned away from the major for lack of adequate capacity. The Paul G. Allen Center, named for the Microsoft co-founder who contributed $14 million in a similar fundraising campaign more than a decade ago, is filled to overflowing. Introductory computer science lectures have so many students that they’re held in the largest auditoriums on campus.

Meanwhile, the tech industry clamors for more qualified workers.

“The economic growth of the entire Puget Sound region is being driven to a considerable degree by growth in the tech sector,” Smith said. “The lifeblood of the tech sector’s continued ability to grow is in fact our ability to attract more talent. The greatest capacity constraint that we face when it comes to recruiting more talent is the lack of capacity in our higher educational institutions in this state.

“The state’s institutions simply are not producing yet the number of computer science degree holders that tech sector needs.”

The UW says a new building would allow it to nearly double the number of computer science degrees it awards each year to about 600.

An early conceptual drawing of the new CSE building interior by LMN Architects. The final building design will incorporate an undergraduate commons (pictured) and instructional labs, seminar rooms, research labs, and collaborative spaces for students and faculty.

An early conceptual drawing of the new CSE building interior by LMN Architects. The final building design will incorporate an undergraduate commons (pictured) and instructional labs, seminar rooms, research labs, and collaborative spaces for students and faculty.

The legislature is now in its second special session, unable to agree on an operating budget for the two-year period that begins July 1. Capital budget proposals are also still in play.

“I am optimistic that we will receive $32 million” from the state, said Ed Lazowska, UW’s Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering, via e-mail. “The sausage is still being made, of course.”

UW originally sought $40 million, which was included in Inslee’s budget request. The Democrat-controlled House provided $6 million for design of the 130,000-square-foot building, but no money for construction in its budget proposal. The Senate, run by Republicans, included $32.5 million, for design and construction, in its version.

“Microsoft has been working with us to advocate with the House to match the Senate number,” said Lazowska, an Xconomist.

If the state comes through with $32.5 million, the UW would still need about $78 million more from other sources. It raised $42 million privately for the Allen Center, including $7.2 million from Microsoft, $6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and seven other donations in excess of $1 million. About 200 private donors contributed in total.

The campaign for the new building has received … Next Page »

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

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