Microsoft is donating $10 million to the University of Washington to kick-start a campaign for a new computer-science building on campus.
The donation was announced late Thursday, and it’s meant to launch the effort aimed at expanding the UW’s computer-science department. It’s also designed to remind lawmakers that the state needs to ante up, too.
An investment from the state “is critical, given that this is a public university, and at the heart of so many jobs the state is creating,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel and executive vice president of legal and corporate affairs.
If the state comes through, Smith predicted that the UW will have the momentum to raise the rest of the money quickly from corporate donors and individuals.
That’s prompted Microsoft and UW officials to walk the halls in Olympia, trying to drum up support.
“A commitment from the state is really important to motivating private donors, both individuals and organizations,” said Ed Lazowska, who holds the UW’s Bill & Melinda Gates chair in Computer Science & Engineering.
As with the UW’s existing, 11-year-old computer-science building — the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering — the UW plans to raise the lion’s share of the money from private donors.
With the new space, the department would be able to double the number of graduates in computer science to 600. Currently, only about a third of students who want to major in the field can get in because space is so limited. In order to expand computer- science offerings, the UW will also need money down the road to hire more faculty.
Space is at a premium not only because more students want to study computer science, but also because of changes in what it means to study the discipline. Increasingly, computer-science students and faculty are building devices and other physical objects, not just writing software, and they need lab space to do that work.
In addition, many students who aren’t planning to major in computer science want to take courses in the field because it’s relevant to work they plan to do.
The building would be about 130,000 square feet, a little smaller than the Allen Center. Design work has already begun, and if the UW succeeds in raising the money to build it, it’s expected to open by fall 2018.
Earlier this year, a who’s who of tech-company leaders sent lawmakers a letter urging them to fund the UW’s request.
Lazowska praised Smith and Microsoft for the donation, and noted that a homegrown supply of talent is especially important for small, local tech companies and startups that don’t have the money to recruit nationally. Microsoft employs many UW grads, Lazowska said, but a Microsoft job has such cachet that the company has no trouble hiring outside the state, or the country.
Lazowska said the computer-science department will award 364 computer-science and computer-engineering degrees this Friday, including 234 bachelor’s degrees, 105 master’s degrees and 25 doctorate degrees. That’s up substantially from a few years ago.
In fact, the department has grown so large that it had to move its graduation ceremony out of Meany Hall and into the Edmundson Pavilion.
“It never occurred to me that this department would be graduating students in the basketball stadium,” Lazowska said. “It’s pretty cool. The goal is to fill it (Edmundson Pavilion) up in the next five years. We want every seat occupied.”