PhotoSteven A. Ballmer, Microsoft's former chief executive, at Harvard on Wednesday.Credit Harvard
Harvard University counts two of the most successful computer programmers in the world — William H. Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, and Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive — as former students. But the university, one of the most respected overall in the world, has never quite made its way into the elite tier of computer science programs.
Now another famous Harvard alum from the technology industry, Steven A. Ballmer, wants to change that.
Mr. Ballmer, the former Microsoft chief executive, will make a financial contribution to Harvard that will enable the school to expand its computer science faculty by about 50 percent. With 24 current computer science faculty, Mr. Ballmer’s gift will allow the program to expand to about 35.
“I can tell you Harvard kids are world class and they deserve the diversity of a world-class computer-science education,” Mr. Ballmer said in an interview.
Mr. Ballmer declined to say how much he is giving to Harvard, responding to the question with: “I’m all in.” An expansion of that magnitude will most likely cost into the eight figures based on salaries for top-notch computer scientists.
Despite its outsize academic reputation, Harvard is an also-ran in computer science, lagging the reputation of top schools in the field, like Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon and the University of California Berkeley. Harvard’s computer science graduate program is ranked 18th by U.S. News & World Report.
Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, called Mr. Ballmer’s support “game-changing” in a statement.
Mr. Ballmer described computer science at Harvard as “small, but excellent” in a statement, saying it “already punches above its weight” in the field. By expanding so much at once, Mr. Ballmer said the school would have an opportunity to become a leader in the latest trends in computing, including machine learning, security and computer vision.
In an interview, David Parkes, the area dean for computer science within Harvard’s school of engineering and applied sciences, said there’s “incredible interest” among Harvard students in the subject. The largest class at Harvard is an introductory computer science course, Computer Science 50, with 818 undergraduate students this semester.
The number of people concentrating in computer science at Harvard almost tripled to 198 during the last academic year from 69 in 2008-9.
“This is going to change everything,” said Dr. Parkes. “This is going to change the way people view computer science here.”
Harvard will not be able to snap its fingers and become a computer science powerhouse over night, though. Top-notch computer scientists are in high demand around the world, not only from universities, but big technology companies like Google.
“The competition for these people is absolutely brutal,” said Oren Etzioni, a former computer science professor from the University of Washington who is now chief executive of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Still, Dr. Etzioni, who was one of the first people to major in computer science at Harvard in the mid-1980s, believes the expansion of its program will have a big impact on its status. “Something like this will take them to next level,” he said.
Mr. Ballmer has been a big booster for Harvard for many years. In 1996, he contributed $10 million and Mr. Gates gave $15 million in a joint gift that paid most of the cost for a new building for Harvard’s electrical engineering, computing and communications programs. That building, called Maxwell Dworkin, was named after Mary Maxwell Gates and Beatrice Dworkin Ballmer, the former executives’ mothers.
Unlike Mr. Gates and Mr. Zuckerberg, both of whom dropped out of Harvard to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions, Mr. Ballmer graduated in 1977. He majored in applied mathematics and economics, managed the football team and worked on the Harvard Crimson newspaper.
Mr. Ballmer, who bought the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team for about $2 billion after his departure from Microsoft earlier this year, said he was motivated to donate to Harvard partly because the Boston area has a vibrant technology scene, brimming with venture capital and startups. He said Harvard’s strength in social sciences and other fields gives it a unique opportunity to bring computer science to other disciplines.
And then there’s the most obvious reason for his support. “I’m an alum,” he said. “That matters.”