WashU announces donation from Square co-founder to grow engineering school

Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) announced today that its engineering school received its largest single donation in history. The donation was offered by Square co-founder and WashU alumni Jim McKelvey, for whom the school will be renamed, from the School of Engineering & Applied Science to The James McKelvey School of Engineering.

WashU did not disclose the donated amount and historically does not disclose financial information.

McKelvey has deep ties to his alma mater. McKelvey’s father, Jim McKelvey Sr., was a professor at the WashU School of Engineering for 23 years before serving as its dean for an additional 27 years. In 2017, McKelvey donated $15 million for a new engineering building that will bear his father’s name. The serial entrepreneur is determined to improve the reach of the school to which he attributes much of his success — since it was there where he first fell in love with computer science.

“This is such a fantastic place to study,” McKelvey told TechCrunch regarding his time as an undergraduate. “At the time, I had no plans to be an engineer. I came in as an economics major and then discovered the engineering school.”

WashU is already one of the top private research universities in the country, and its engineering school — which provides 40 different degree programs led by roughly 230 professors — represents the university’s second largest concentration of undergraduate enrollment. STEM majors and careers have continued to grow more popular — yet the supply of education and talent hasn’t kept up. The fight for talent in the Valley remains harder than ever, and by 2020, the number of unfilled computing jobs is expected to reach one million. With the incremental capital and its connection to major leaders like McKelvey, WashU hopes the donation can help the school satisfy the demand for high-quality technical education and seriously enhance its position as an elite engineering university.

Though the funds are not tied to any particular spending requirements and can be used flexibly, the school plans to use the money primarily to fund scholarships and faculty recruitment, retention and research. Additionally, McKelvey’s donation will be key to WashU’s initiative of expanding opportunities for interdisciplinary study between the engineering school and other departments.

In a conversation with TechCrunch, the engineering school’s dean, Aaron Bobick, highlighted his hope for inter-department concentrations involving Economics and Computing, Finance and Systems Engineering and various other combinations. “Engineering is a way of thinking and we need to produce folks that sit at the intersection of all these disciplines,” said Bobick.

WashU also hopes to allocate a portion of the donation toward increasing community engagement and establishing partnership programs with the growing tech ecosystem in St. Louis. “We need to be a place where the quality of both our impact and the people we produce is clear to everyone. We want to do more and do it at a higher level.” 

In the school’s release, Bobick outlined his large ambitions for the McKelvey School of Engineering:

We are extraordinarily grateful to Jim Jr. and his family for their incredible history of generosity to the engineering school. Particularly now, while we stand poised to truly transform our approach to research, innovation and learning, this new commitment will allow us to advance the McKelvey School of Engineering into the next tier of top engineering programs in this country and the world. This tremendous gift creates new opportunities for our students and faculty to tackle the world’s greatest engineering challenges, and to dramatically expand computing throughout the university. At the same time, it helps ensure that a diverse population of students will have access to a world-class engineering education, and enable the school to be a catalyst for economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

The donation represents the latest in a series of large gifts to universities with a focus on enhancing resources in STEM fields. WashU has also been pushing the expansion of its engineering school through a number of other avenues, having invested more than $250 million since 2000, which includes 700,000 square feet in new engineering facilities, with two new academic buildings set to open in 2019 and 2020.