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 other pledges of support, but for now the names and amounts have not been disclosed.

Of course, it’s no accident that Microsoft and its founders have backed the UW computer science department so generously over the years. It was the scene of major episodes in the company’s origin story. “The partnership between UW and Microsoft goes back more than 40 years—to the pre-Microsoft days when Bill Gates and Paul Allen were high school students at Lakeside and roamed UW’s computing facilities,” Lazowska said.

Microsoft supports computer science education efforts around the world, focusing on the best programs. “On that measure, the University of Washington is in the very top tier, which is fantastic,” Smith said.

More broadly, Smith said Microsoft cares about its home state. “We very much appreciate that our success here in Washington state is tied to everyone’ success here in Washington state,” he said.

The tech industry in Washington has been a vocal advocate for improving education from pre-Kindergarten through college, with particular emphasis on preparing Washington kids for jobs in the burgeoning tech industry.

While the industry has made consistent, clear calls for better public education, it has offered few public proposals for how to pay for it.

Last week, when the subject of a capital gains tax came up at the Technology Alliance annual luncheon, it was decisively shot down by the keynote speakers, Tom Alberg of Madrona Venture Group, and Steve Singh, CEO of Concur, as Geekwire reported.

Smith said Microsoft has neither supported nor opposed that specific revenue-raising proposal.

Asked whether groups like the Technology Alliance, where he is a board member, and companies like Microsoft should be advocating for specific solutions to raise revenue, Smith said: “We’re very sensitive to the need for the state budget to have more revenue. I do think you’ll find us being supportive of that. It doesn’t always manifest itself in leading the parade from the front row, but it is something that we’re sensitive to.”

He added that Washington’s strong economy is expected to increase state revenue by 8 to 10 percent in the next biennial budget. “One should ask whether there’s more revenue growth needed on top of that. We’re focused on both elements,” Smith said.

Smith said Microsoft is “very present in Olympia.”

“We’re engaged in what I hope people will look back at and say was a constructive conversation, and sometimes conversations are better off through the front page of the paper, and other times, the harder issues are better off discussed in other ways,” Smith said. He added, “At a time when we’re offering $10 million in this way, we’re definitely sensitive to the fact that other investments may be needed in a variety of other forms as well.”

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