University of Virginia announces $120M gift to fund new data science school

One of America’s oldest universities is launching a school for one of the world’s youngest disciplines.

The University of Virginia announced today that it has received a $120 million private donation to endow a new School of Data Science. The donation is the largest in the university’s history, and will create the twelfth school at the university.

The donation was offered by the Quantitative Foundation, which is based in UVA’s hometown of Charlottesville. Jaffray Woodriff, the founder and CEO of Quantitative Investment Management, is the trustee of the foundation, where his wife Merrill is a director. QIM is one of the hedge fund leaders in quantitative trading, and Bloomberg noted that the fund saw investment returns of 55 percent in the first few months of 2017.

UVA’s administration said that the School of Data Science intends to offer a range of degree programs, from the bachelor’s to the doctoral level, as well as to be a center for research on data science. It massively expands UVA’s current Data Science Institute, which was opened in 2013 and also was funded by a $10 million grant from the Quantitative Foundation. The school is pending approval from internal UVA governance committees as well as the state of Virginia before launching.

In its release, UVA explained the unique design of the school:

The school will have satellites and centers instead of departments. The satellites will be embedded in other schools to facilitate collaborative data science work in those disciplines, and the centers will be theme-based with focus areas to include data acquisition; engineering; analytics; visualization and dissemination; and ethics, policy and law.

UVA is not the first university to offer a dedicated (or rebranded) school of data science, but it is certainly among the most prominent.

Large donations to universities have been trickling in the past year, with many of the donations focused on generating interest in technical fields, as well as medicine. Facebook’s first full-time employee Taner Halicioglu donated $75 million to the University of California San Diego, focused on data science, in early 2017.

Late last year, MIT announced that it had received $350 million for a new computing-focused school from investment manager Stephen A. Schwarzman, while Harvard received $100 million for mathematics and the sciences from an anonymous donor.

UVA’s announcement is the first large university donation announced in 2019.