For a University and a Top Billionaire Donor, a Huge Bet on Artificial Intelligence

MIT. Photo: Elijah Lovkoff/shutterstock

MIT. Photo: Elijah Lovkoff/shutterstock

With a $1 billion plan to restructure the school around computer science and artificial intelligence, MIT is making a huge bet on fields that are ruling the tech industry, but are also seeping into many other areas of life. And university officials are relying heavily on wealthy donors to do so, with one in particular giving $350 million. 

It’s a notable convergence of a few trends in academic and research funding. For one, we’re seeing several universities prioritizing research and technology, and a surge in philanthropy to advance and/or watchdog the progress of artificial intelligence (MIT wants to do both). And the school is just the latest seeking to remake itself or add a substantial new dimension using private donations, aiming to remain competitive in the increasingly costly world of higher education.

The announcement of any $1 billion commitment is pretty significant, but it’s even more so, considering MIT officials say this one will allow a historic reshaping of the school. They’ve already raised $650 million of the total needed, anchored by a $350 million donation from billionaire financier (and frequent Trump advisor) Stephen Schwarzman to establish a new College of Computing that will bear his name. That will include a new building serving as a hub for computer science, AI and data science, but the focus will reach into all of MIT’s existing schools.

“[T]he College will equip students and researchers in any discipline to use computing and AI to advance their disciplines and vice-versa, as well as to think critically about the human impact of their work,” the announcement states. 

That’s putting a big bet on the pervasive future of computing, and one that was informed in part by the fact that 40 percent of MIT undergrads are majoring in, or pursuing a joint major that includes computer science. 

AI Explosion

MIT’s decision shows just how much artificial intelligence and computing have become a part of our vision of the future—or at least donors’ visions of the future. We’ve been covering the wave of large donations related to artificial intelligence in recent years, and before that, the big surge in gifts for campus data science centers. 

That’s included a lot of alumni trying to get their beloved schools up to speed. But it’s also manifested in university-corporate partnerships with Google, Uber and car companies getting cozy with schools and their rising pools of talent. And then there’s the particularly fascinating trend of tech donors making donations to inform ethical and safe application of AI in society. 

MIT itself previously entered a $240 million partnership with IBM, and the school is already a lead institution of a philanthropic initiative on AI ethics and public interest. While this move is a big shift in terms of emphasis, MIT has been a major player in this field for decades.

The university’s new college will weave together a lot of threads related to computer science and AI, especially considering its interdisciplinary focus. But it does put a big emphasis on ethics and policy implications. “Technological advancements must go hand in hand with the development of ethical guidelines that anticipate the risks of such enormously powerful innovations,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said, nodding to the importance of the liberal arts in this plan.

The Remaking of an Institute

According to Reif, the decision to make this change started over a year ago, responding to high student interest in computer science, and involving an exploration by administration and faculty leaders. The university is also holding feedback forums throughout October, although the governing body already approved the new college.

MIT already has a number of initiatives on computer science, AI and related topics. But according to the New York Times, Schwarzman “urged Mr. Reif to go further” as they discussed the topic. The donor had been increasingly fascinated by artificial intelligence—starting with a conversation he had with Chinese billionaire Jack Ma—particularly the ethical and workplace implications. Schwarzman told the paper he hopes MIT’s decision will inspire other investments in the field to keep the country competitive.

Of course, MIT’s far from alone in its use of private donations to make sweeping changes at an institution. Harvard’s big fundraising campaign recently hit a staggering $9.62 billion, including a notorious $400 million gift to expand its engineering school. Caltech is establishing a neuroscience institute with a $115 million from donor couple Tianqiao Chen and Chrissy Luo. University of Oregon is constructing a $1 billion science campus anchored by $500 million from Phil and Penny Knight. The University of California at San Francisco is undergoing a transformation thanks to a huge infusion of funds from the Helen Diller Foundation.

Schwarzman’s “urging to go further” is a common refrain we hear in philanthropy, and it hints at some growing concerns in academia about how much influence these donors are wielding. For example, a new book on the topic holds some startling revelations on the influence Phil Knight has had at the University of Oregon. 

While there are no such allegations surrounding the MIT gift, Schwarzman has been at the center of another donor influence scandal. Back in April, he came under fire for a long list of demands he had initially imposed for a $25 million donation to his high school alma mater. That included a prominently placed portrait of himself, and naming parts of the school after his high school friends. But he also wanted input on construction of the new campus, and required regular reports on a new computer literacy initiative. 

Again, there’s no indication of that kind of overreach here, but you can understand why these huge academic gifts, especially to elite schools, have inspired both appreciation and indignation. It’s certainly true that MIT’s move reflects trends in technology that are changing higher education—and the world, for that matter—and MIT’s savvy fundraising is helping them keep their edge. But it’s also yet another example of the huge impact billionaire donors are having on academic institutions, and by extension, the next generation.