Paul Allen, Microsoft Give $50 Million for University of Washington Computer Science School

Allen used to sneak into university's lab to use the computers when he was in high school

The University of Washington is naming a new computer science and engineering school after Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, funded by a $50 million donation from the billionaire and the world's largest software maker.  

Allen will give $40 million to fund an endowment, while Microsoft Corp. is providing the rest in honor of the man who started the company with high-school buddy Bill Gates. On Thursday, the school's board of regents approved changing the Seattle-based university's computer science program from a department to its own school, to be called the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.

"My hope is that it fortifies their ability to keep rising in ranks of computer science departments and gives them flexibility to do a lot of different things," Allen, 64, said in an interview. "Computer science these days is much more interdisciplinary, crossing over into everything from biological modeling to aerodynamics to modeling economic systems." Expanding into these areas, as well as recruiting top professors that are being offered lucrative packages from technology companies, takes extra funds, he said.

Allen's involvement with the University dates to about 1970 when, as a high school student looking for any way to get precious time on the rare computers available, he would hang out in the University's computer lab, assisting students and professors. Finally a professor asked if he was actually a student and Allen was forced to admit he wasn't. But he was allowed to stay, as long as he continued to be helpful. 

Allen has a net worth of $20.8 billion, making him the 34th-richest person in the world, according to Bloomberg's Billionaires Index. After leaving Microsoft in 1983, Allen co-founded Vulcan Inc. in 1986 to house his various investments and interests, ranging from the Seattle Seahawks football team to the Allen Institute for Brain Science to real estate and philanthropy.

The endowment should generate $2 million a year in funds that the school will use to respond to emerging opportunities like recruiting  faculty and helping fund new ideas for research, said Ed Lazowska, the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the university. Allen's name is also a draw to both students and professors.

"The association with Paul has an incredible aspiration and reputation value," Lazowska said. "He's a revered pioneer and visionary who has left an indelible mark on the world."

 

Paul Allen standing in the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering

 

The University of Washington has been fundraising and garnering additional funds from the state for the past several years to establish a second computer-science building and double the number of computer science degrees it grants to about 625 a year. The existing building already bears Allen's name and the new one has received donations from Microsoft, Amazon.com Inc. and Zillow Group Inc. as well as local tech executives. The department has been ranked in the top 10 computer science programs for about three decades, but hasn't yet cracked what are considered "the Big 4," said Lazowska, who has been on the faculty for 40 years. 

"We have been for a number of years on the verge of being a No. 1 computer science department,'' competing only with Stanford University, The University of California at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, he said. "This and the new building will let us finally join that club."

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