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The campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge will soon be home to a new college of computer science, which will get its own building.

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MIT to use $350 million gift to bolster computer sciences

A $350 million gift from investment banker Stephen Schwarzman will allow the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge to “rewire” how it educates students in this foundational subject, school officials announced today.

The money will help finance a new building that will house a college of computing named for its major donor. It will also allow MIT to cope with the rising demand for computer science courses from students majoring in any number of disciplines by paying for 50 new faculty members.

“Roughly 40% of our current undergraduates are majoring in computer science or computer science and X,” says MIT Provost Martin Schmidt. With only 10% of the university’s 1000 faculty currently teaching computer science courses, Schmidt says, “having them teach 40% of the undergraduates has created a huge load imbalance.”

Computing is now part of the department of electrical engineering and computer science within MIT’s school of engineering. It is by far the largest of MIT’s five schools, serving 70% of undergraduates and 45% of graduate students.

“It no longer makes sense to have computer science within electrical engineering,” says Michael Stonebraker, one of seven MIT computing faculty members who wrote an open letter last year asking MIT to consider creating a separate school of computing. Computing was being taught “in a haphazard fashion” across many departments, he says, an “inefficient and fragmented approach” that undermined the quality of instruction.

The new college addresses those problems, says Schmidt, as well as “linking computation to all disciplines on campus.” That meets a growing demand for such skills by students in the social sciences, he notes. The number of students majoring in computer science and economics, for example, has tripled since the major was created 2 years ago, he notes.

Half of the new faculty positions will go to the new college, and the other half will be distributed across campus. Those additional linkages will make it easier for MIT to attract and retain top talent, Schmidt says. “Right now, if we want to hire a computational linguist, it’s hard to know in which department to hire them and how to review them for promotion and tenure.”

The organizational status of computing varies across other top-ranked U.S. research universities. The Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, already have separate colleges or schools of computing, whereas computer science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and the University of California, Berkeley, falls within electrical engineering/computer science departments. MIT will also hire a dean of the new college, which will open next fall. Construction has not yet begun on the new building, which is expected to be completed in 2022.

Schwarzman’s donation is part of a $1 billion institutional commitment to computer science and artificial intelligence. Another $300 million for computing activities has been pledged as part of a capital campaign launched in May 2016 that has reached $4.3 billion of its $5 billion goal.