Amazon Pledges $10M to Expand UW Computer Science Program

The University of Washington is $10 million closer to its goal of a significantly expanded computer science program thanks to a gift from Amazon announced Thursday.

The Seattle-based tech giant’s commitment to the $110 million public-private fundraising campaign for a new computer science building is its largest local contribution yet. Amazon, despite thousands of local employees, has been criticized for its perceived lack of local philanthropy, particularly in comparison to Northwest stalwarts such as Microsoft and Boeing. (Microsoft kicked off the fundraising campaign for the new 130,000-square-foot computer science and engineering building last year, also with a $10 million donation.)

This is Amazon’s third significant contribution to UW in the last four years. Last year, the company began a grant-funding program at UW, Amazon Catalyst, to support students, faculty, and staff working on “bold, risky, globally impactful projects.” And in 2012, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos funded the creation of a pair of endowed professorships that were instrumental in recruiting sought-after professors.

“The University of Washington is a world-class institution, and we are lucky to have thousands of UW graduates inventing and pioneering in Seattle—including right here at Amazon,” Bezos says in a news release. “We’re proud to support UW as they expand their computer science program, which will benefit the whole community.”

As planned, the new building would make room for enough students and faculty to double the number of degrees awarded by UW in computer science and engineering each year, to more than 600. Many of those new graduates would fit in a 250-seat auditorium in the new building to be named for Amazon.

The fast-growing Washington tech industry is hiring computer science graduates as fast as top-flight universities such as UW can produce them. Computer science is the top choice major for first-year students. But two out of three students interested in the major are denied entry into UW computer science due to lack of capacity.

“UW graduates with skills in computer science are highly sought after, yet we are turning away excellent students who want to pursue studies in the field because we simply don’t have enough room,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce says in a news release.

The university is well on its way toward raising the funding for the new building, which would complement the existing Paul G. Allen Center, built more than 12 years ago, and currently well over capacity.

Counting Amazon’s $10 million, some $86 million has been committed to the building project, including $32.5 million in state funds.

UW aims to begin construction in January.

Meanwhile, the school is planning a broader fund-raising campaign to begin later this month.

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

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