Another Huge Gift Finds Donors Responding to Surging Demand for Engineering Grads

the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UCLA. Pamela Brick/shutterstock

the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UCLA. Pamela Brick/shutterstock

Writing in The Conversation last year, Case Western Reserve University’s Peter E. Knox argued that “There’s simply no evidence that the U.S. lacks the scientists or engineers it needs, as many donors claim.”

Donors, however, disagree. What’s more, donors with direct experience in the engineering field strongly disagree. Consider Henry Samueli, who, along with his wife Susan, recently gave the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering $100 million through their Samueli Foundation to fund the school’s ambitious expansion plans. The gift, the largest the school has ever received, is yet another example of private donors stepping up to make big engineering-related investments.

If anyone feels the pulse of the ever-evolving field of engineering, it’s Samueli. With a net worth of $4.2 billion, he co-founded semiconductor company Broadcom Corporation in 1991. Broadcom was acquired by Avago Technologies in 2016 for $37 billion and renamed itself Broadcom Ltd. Samueli served as the company’s chief technical officer until December 2018, and is now the company’s chairman.

The Samuelis are prominent philanthropists with a focus on higher education, cancer research and Jewish community organizations. In 2017, they made a $200 million gift to the University of California, Irvine, the largest in its history, earmarked for integrative medicine. Detractors argued that the gift legitimized unproven medical practices. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University and longtime critic of alternative therapies, called the gift a “very bad thing.”

No one seems to be pushing back on the Samuelis’ recent gift, though—not at a moment when tech companies are saying they can’t find enough engineers and some industry analysts are warning that a shortage of talent in this area will translate into an ever growing hit to the U.S. economy.

“Susan and I are thrilled to be able to support the continued expansion of the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering,” Henry Samueli said. “The demand for engineering graduates has continued to grow unabated, so it is exciting to see UCLA’s significant commitment to increase the number of students and faculty, and expand research and entrepreneurship within the school. Such a commitment will ensure that UCLA Samueli remains among the elite engineering schools in the world, with an ever-growing impact on our society’s greatest challenges.”

Decades of Support

Samueli attended UCLA, where he received his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D., all in the field of electrical engineering. (Fun fact: His Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Nonperiodic Forced Overflow Oscillations in Digital Filters.”) Samueli worked at UCLA as an electrical engineering professor from 1985 to 1995. In 1991, he co-founded Broadcom with one of his Ph.D. students, Henry Nicholas. He also owns the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.

In 2000, UCLA renamed the engineering school in his honor following a $30 million gift that supported capital improvements as well as fellowships for graduate students and early career faculty. The Samuelis have provided continued support to the school, including $10 million to establish endowed professorships and $20 million for undergraduate scholarships and internships. The couple did not specify how their new gift should be used other than to expand the engineering school, said Dean Jayathi Murthy.

The UCLA Samueli School of Engineering is a magnet for other donors, as well. In April, Stacey Nicholas, who, like her former husband Henry, received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA in electrical engineering, gave the school a $5 million gift to create a permanent endowment for a program to support women in engineering. Nicholas was impressed by the fact in the fall 2018, women made up 27 percent of the school’s Women in Engineering undergraduate enrollment—the highest proportion in the school’s history, an increase of seven percentage points from a decade ago, and higher than the national average.

The Samuelis have given more than $188 million to UCLA and more than $478 million overall to the University of California system. Their recent gift is part of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, which is scheduled to conclude in December 2019, during UCLA’s 100th anniversary year. Henry is the campaign’s Orange County chair. UCLA has raised $4.7 billion so far, and is on track to hit $5 billion.

Attuned to Demand

But let’s come back to Peter E. Knox’s contention that the supply of science and engineering students outpaces demand. How can we square his contention with the view of donors who’ve made their fortunes in tech and see the situation very differently?

Let’s start with the issue of semantics. Commentators, universities and donors frequently place an assortment of skills and jobs under the STEM umbrella. A STEM professional can be a data scientist, an energy scientist or a molecular scientist. They can also be a dental hygienist or occupational therapy assistant, as these professions fall within the “health and medical sciences” sub-category.

“When it gets generalized to all of STEM, it’s misleading,” Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told the New York Times’ Steve Lohr. “We’re misleading a lot of young people” about the demand for STEM jobs, he argued, since shortages are primarily concentrated in a handful of fast-growing fields like data analytics, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and computer security.

The data backs up Teitelbaum’s contention. In 2017, LinkedIn researchers identified the skills most in demand. The top 10 were all computer skills, including expertise in cloud computing, data mining and statistical analysis, and writing smartphone applications. Meanwhile, Edward Lazowska, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, analyzed employment forecasts in STEM categories courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He found that in the decade ending in 2024, 73 percent of STEM job growth will be in “computer occupations,” while only 3 percent will be in the physical sciences and 3 percent in the life sciences.

The field of “physical sciences” can include jobs like microbiologist or geologist. Given LinkedIn and Lazowska’s analysis, we’d be raising red flags if donors were giving hundreds of millions of dollars to these fields. But this is not the case. Rather, funders have directed a disproportionate number of STEM gifts to computer science, engineering, data analytics and artificial intelligence—the exact fields where the data suggests there is the greatest demand.

And again, it’s no coincidence that a lot of this giving is coming from donors like Samueli and Nicholas with direct professional experience and corporate funders citing demand for “computer occupations.”

Here are three examples pertaining to the latter category. The Bethesda, Maryland-based James & Alice B. Clark Foundation is a big STEM funder in the D.C. metro region. As the chairman and CEO of Clark Enterprises, Clark, who died in 2015, was a major figure in construction and development in the Washington region. When the company’s website argues that “engineers are problem-solvers, and we believe the world needs more of them,” I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Then there’s the Lake Forest, Illinois-based WW Grainger Foundation, whose corporate parent is WW Grainger, a $10 billion industrial supply company with a formidable digital presence and over 25,000 employees. The foundation has provided support to the Grainger College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering since 1979. In May, the foundation announced a $100 million unrestricted gift to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering. The foundation’s $300 million in total support to the college represents the largest amount ever given to a public university to name a college of engineering, with more than $200 million provided in the last six years.

And third, earlier this year, the University of Washington opened the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science and & Engineering. With a price tag of $110 million, roughly $70 million in funding came from tech donors including Zillow Group, Microsoft, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Amazon. “The enrollment demand is tremendous, the employment demand is tremendous,” said Lazowska back in 2017. “We're trying to double our enrollment and we have no place to put the students and faculty.”

A similar phenomenon is playing out in Los Angeles. Commenting on the Samuelis’ gift, Engineering Dean Murthy said, “We have this huge pool of talent and we don’t have enough seats.” This will change soon enough. Thanks to the Samuelis’ gift, the school aims to enroll at least 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students by 2028, up from 5,300 in 2016. It will also seek to add approximately 100 professors over the same period of time for a roster of nearly 250.

The fact that this expansion was made by possible by private donors rather than state legislators wasn’t lost on UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, who told the Los Angeles Times’ Teresa Watanabe he does not believe the state will ever resume past levels of funding. “It’s a concern in the long term,” he said. “We have to bring in ways to bring in more revenue.”