By Jack Stubbs
“If there’s ever been a clear win for this region and for Microsoft, it’s got to be investing in great computer science,” said Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at a “topping out” ceremony held for the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science and Engineering currently under construction at the UW Seattle Campus.
The ceremony, held on Wednesday, December 13th at the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering, celebrated the end of the first phase of construction for the new computer science building, which was designed by Seattle-based LMN Architects, as well as a donation of $15 million from Bill and Melinda Gates to close the fundraising campaign for the project. The event was held across the street from the under-construction building and was attended by donors, friends and members of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering and members of the UW community.
The 135,000 square foot Bill & Melinda Gates Center, which will open in early 2019, will allow the university to double its annual computer science an engineering degree production. The building marks a milestone not only for the university, but also for the state of Washington, according to Ana Mari Cauce, president of the university and professor of psychology. “I’m really delighted to be here to celebrate this special and pivotal moment for computer science education here at the University of Washington…but really, the people of Washington State are the real winners in this, because of the opportunities that [the building] will provide individuals to be educated,” she said.
The topping off ceremony not only represents a landmark program for the Computer Science and Engineering department, but it will also have larger implications in the long-term, according to Cauce. “When opportunities for students grow, they can have an impact on the wider world. Today… is also a powerful example of how giving through the University can change the world,” she added.
The topping off ceremony marks the close of an eventful nearly year-long process for the department of Computer Science and Engineer at the University. The groundbreaking for the new building took place at the beginning of 2017. In October 2017, the UW Board of Regents voted to name the building for the Gateses, after Microsoft and a group of the couple’s longtime friends and colleagues collaborated to donate more than $30 million in their honor. With that donation—and the $15 million contribution from Bill and Melinda Gates—fundraising for the $110 million building came to a close.
From the very beginning, the building itself has been an investment on behalf of everyone involved, according to Brad Smith, president of Microsoft. “This project since its inception has been a real labor of love. This is a new building for the university, and for a world class department…it’s a building for the future and will help this department grow opportunities for others,” he said. Expanding an already nationally-ranked computer science program at the university, the building will feature an undergraduate commons for the more than 1,000 undergraduate students enrolled in the major; a new robotics laboratory; a wet lab for research at the intersection of computing and biology; and additional classroom, office and collaboration spaces, among other features.
Like the Paul G. Allen Center, the new building—and the Allen School’s expansion—was funded through a public-private partnership, with additional contributions from couples who contributed as the “Friends of Bill and Melinda,” as well as Amazon, Zillow, Google and more than 350 friends and alumni. Since most of the major fundraising for the project is complete, the university’s Campaign for CSE will now focus on increasing support for students to ensure that a computer science education can be attained, regardless of background, through graduate fellowships and scholarships. The campaign is one of the university’s most ambitious, and seeks to raise $5 billion for the department by 2020.
And, over the years, the computer science department has become somewhat synonymous with the university, which has subsequently helped to put the state on the world map. According to Melinda Gates, the topping off ceremony for the new building marks the latest chapter in a long-term affinity that the Gates family has for the institution. Of Bill and Mary Gates—Bill Gates’ parents—Gates said, “[They both] loved this university. They both went here, and saw what it did for them and other young people. They believed in it because of the opportunity that it brings for young people to prosper and work in our state,” she said. “[So] we couldn’t be prouder to have our names on the building,” she added.
The building’s completion also represents various other landmarks that have been achieved. Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University, and Hank Levy, Director of the Paul G. Allen School, played especially pivotal roles, according to Melinda Gates. “[They have] made sure that there are multiple pathways for young women and minorities [to take] into computer science…we don’t have to do anything except be along for the ride,” she said.
The milestone for the new computer science building represents the latest chapter for Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft, which was founded in 1975. Through his parents, Bill Gates has a particular affinity for the university. “My connection to the university [through] my parents is very strong. [But] my connection is a little more unusual… a lot people didn’t know that if you came in late at night or early in the morning, you could steal lots of computer time,” he joked.
When Microsoft moved back to Seattle in 1979, it was a blossoming company with roughly 15 employees—but it retained a long-term vision, which grew in tandem with the university, according to Gates. “We had big ambitions, so were hoping that the university would grow along with us, that its size and ranking would make it one of the best in the world—and, in fact, that’s exactly what has happened,” he said. According to Gates, the milestone achieved with the new building isn’t necessarily the conclusion of a chapter, but represents that greater things still lie ahead. “Demand [in the computer science department] seems to climb so much that even this new building will be full to the brim very, very quickly,” he said.