News analysis: Motives behind 20 million

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Tuesday afternoon, some six hours after the announcement of a landmark $20 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to build a new computer science building, faculty, staff, and students had a chance to celebrate at a catered reception in Newell-Simon Hall?s Perlis Atrium.

Notwithstanding the facts that the atrium was filled well beyond its rated capacity and that the food was much better than the dreck put out by Catering Services, a distinct ennui seemed to envelop much of the crowd.

The buzz was somewhat consistent: a population of mostly undergraduate computer science students, many disappointed by perceived avarice on the part of Mr. Gates and the Foundation.

Comparisons to the nearly three-times-larger Tepper donation of not six months prior were inevitable and came without restraint, accompanied quickly by scads of Microsoft enmity from the Linux faithful at the gathering.

Perhaps these students were merely trying to gain credibility in the CS student body?s generally anti-Redmond milieu; perhaps they were merely misguided.

This gift has nothing to do with Microsoft. It is not about operating system sedition, sucking up to The Man, or providing Computing Services with a small push to further reduce the number of Sun workstations in the clusters.

A look at the Campus Master Plan from 2002 shows that the building was going to be built anyway. At the same time, $20 million is still less than half of the total funding necessary for building, so it is clear that the University had the money for the building, as well.

The donation, therefore, is best explained as a ringing endorsement of computer science in general and the faculty, staff, and students of the School of Computer Science in particular.

When David Tepper announced he was donating $55 million in March, it was a quite a major transformation. A CMU alumnus giving back some of that which his alma mater helped him to gain is part of what the University asks of all of its alumni.
To receive a large sum from somebody like Gates, however, is a completely different story. Gates has had little historical connection with the University; he had no reason to give so freely other than to immediately facilitate further advances in one of the most important research fields today.

The parallels between the two announcements are so few that juxtaposing the amounts is akin to comparing Apples and Suns. Both have huge magnitude with respect to their impact on the University, but they share little more.

Those associated with Carnegie Mellon are fully aware of the quality of education and research evident in nearly every program and discipline. Time after time, breakthroughs in all of the major areas of computer science come from the incredibly talented lot in Wean and Newell-Simon.

Gates? donation will give these people exactly what they need in order to continue doing what they do so well: more space, more resources, and more endorsement from industry.