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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 28, 2013 at 11:46 AM

UW plans $100 million comp sci building, time for crowdsourcing?

Ten years after it opened, the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering still has that new-building smell.

Likely expansion site, viewed from sixth floor of Allen Center

Likely expansion site, viewed from sixth floor of Allen Center

It’s a glorious home for the University of Washington’s esteemed computer-science program, with polished wood and metal interiors that look more like Microsoft headquarters than a public school.

Labs face a soaring, six-story atrium and offices have breathtaking views across campus and Lake Washington. There’s a museum-grade collection of Northwest art and a series of comfy gathering spaces named for industry icons who joined Microsoft co-founder Allen to help fund the $72 million palace of learning.

More important, graduates have found jobs at pretty much all the world’s leading tech companies. The school is also an important center for research into emerging fields such as “big data” analytics, machine learning and computer-vision.

The program is so successful and important that lawmakers shuffled the state’s scant education funding over the past two years to increase enrollment.

Output of undergraduates is now approaching 250 a year, up from 160 a few years ago. There are also about 50 incoming Ph.D. students per year, double the intake four years ago.

The Allen Center’s Microsoft Atrium at capacity during a 2010 speech by Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, on the future of cloud computing. Photo by Dean Rutz, Times staff photographer.

There’s just one problem. The building is now full, and the program keeps growing.

“We have no more space — that’s going to be an issue for us in the future,” Hank Levy, the department’s chairman, said last week during an annual meeting with tech companies that support the program and recruit its graduates.

Levy then disclosed plans to build an entirely new computer-science building across the street.

It’s early in the process, but the plan is to construct a $100 million “quantitative and computational center” on a grassy square just southeast of the Allen Center, with a possible underground tunnel linking the two computer-science buildings.

Design work could start next year and the building could be ready for students four years later.

The new center would house multidisciplinary programs, which are proliferating as computer science becomes integral to other fields of research.

It could also accommodate surging demand for programming courses that’s coming from students across the university. During the past school year, 2,500 took the introductory course.

“More and more students are realizing they’ve got to be really well-versed in computational thinking, no matter what they’ll be doing,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering.

A capital campaign to raise private money for the building will begin next year. A request for public funding, to start design work, will be made during the next legislative session.

The facility is on a wish list of projects around the university that altogether add up to a mind-boggling $7.57 billion.

That includes $2 billion of urgent projects that are first in line, including renovation of the aging Denny and Lewis halls.

The new computer-science building is in the next wave of potential projects, among them, reconstruction of the Burke Museum, a new dental school, replacement of a business-school building and major work on several health-sciences facilities.

Computer science is likely to fare well. It has a high profile and plenty of clout, especially with allies like Microsoft, Amazon.com and Boeing.

It shouldn’t be hard to find a marquee donor for the building, given the school’s connections with tech royalty.

Allen and Bill Gates are the most obvious candidates, in part because Microsoft’s history can be traced back to their teen years, sneaking into the UW computer lab.

They’ve already funded many of the newer buildings on campus. Gates also led funding of new computer-science buildings at leading schools around the world, including MIT, Stanford, Cornell and Carnegie Mellon.

More recently the UW turned to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos to help recruit and fund faculty for the machine-learning program.

I wonder, though, if the support of these tech billionaires will also make lawmakers question how much public funding is really needed for the project.

Education funding remains a sensitive subject with the state failing to adequately fund not only higher education, but also K-12 schools, which can only dream of facilities like those the UW continues to build.

As the parent of kids in creaky, crowded public schools, I’ve got a suggestion.

Perhaps the UW should consider a crowdfunding approach.

To raise the public share of this new building, it could sell bonds, to be repaid by commercial activity the building generates over the next few decades.

A similar approach enabled the UW to reconstruct its football stadium for $250 million without public funding, other than debt financing by the school. The stadium bonds are to be repaid over the next 30 years by the crowd of ticket buyers, plus private donations and the sale of naming rights.

Investors in the new computer-science arena could be repaid with dividends from startups spun out of the school, and proceeds from the licensing of intellectual property created within the building. Investors with children could opt to be repaid with tuition credits through the state’s 529 college savings plan.

The UW already collects licensing fees from companies that use student and faculty research. It also invites well-heeled investors to get in on the action and boost startup activity through a $20 million venture fund the school’s Center for Commercialization started last year.

Why not collect a bit more to pay for the new building and give ordinary investors a chance to get involved?

After the hat’s been passed around Medina.

Comments | Topics: Amazon.com, Bill Gates, Boeing

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