Major boost for computer science

Ballmer challenges Harvard to "catch the next wave"

By Alvin Powell, Harvard Gazette

Ana-Maria Constantin '16 described her passion for astrophysics and computer science—and the importance of combining knowledge with impact—at a special event held at the Harvard Innovation Lab on November 13. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.)

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made the case today that advances in computer science will be a key driver of global innovation, and that an enhanced computer science program will ensure that Harvard plays a leadership role in a host of other fields.

Ballmer was joined by President Drew Faust and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) Dean Cherry Murray at an i-lab event to formally announce that the University will increase its computer science faculty by 50 percent over the next few years, to 36 from 24.

The expansion will be achieved with financial backing from Ballmer, who graduated from Harvard College in 1977 and dropped out of Stanford Business School to join classmate Bill Gates during Microsoft’s early years.

“In my opinion, leadership in computer science is fundamental to Harvard remaining the leading institution in education,” Ballmer said. “It really is about ensuring this institution stay vibrant, because … if Harvard doesn’t lead [in computer science], it will affect all parts of the institution. If Harvard doesn’t lead, it affects the vibrant ecosystem of companies and entrepreneurship and job opportunities that create this amazing feedback cycle: kids graduate, start companies, companies grow, they give back to the institution. The academics benefit from the entrepreneurship; the entrepreneurs benefit from the academic research and talent that’s been educated [there].”

Computer science, one of six undergraduate concentrations at SEAS, has grown steadily in the past seven years. From just 69 undergraduate concentrators in 2008-09, this year the number of student concentrators reached 275.

In addition, the School has nearly 100 doctoral students in computer science and 38 students in its new one- and two-year master’s programs in the field. The School also has two computer-science related research programs: the Center for Research on Computation and Society and the Institute for Applied Computational Science.

A day earlier, Ballmer had visited the introductory course CS50, which, with 875 students, has become the University’s most popular. He reflected on lessons learned at Harvard and Microsoft, and as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Big ideas, hard work, passion, optimism, and good luck have all played a part in his success, Ballmer told the students on Wednesday. He also relayed his belief that “everything is a technology problem,” and that technology, ultimately, drives progress.

The support from Ballmer — the amount hasn’t been announced — comes as part of the $6.5 billion Harvard Campaign, whose public phase kicked off last fall. The initiative has so far raised $4.3 billion.

Faust praised Ballmer, adding that the expanded faculty will “transform and enhance” computer science, creating a “deeper, larger department.”

“He’s enabling for us a significant expansion of computer science at a pivotal moment for the field and for scientific discovery across fields. He has challenged us to catch the next wave, the next wave in computer science, and he has pressed us to be ready for that challenge and to rise to it. We can and we will.”

Read the entire article in the Harvard Gazette

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Topics: Computer Science