By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. — The crowd sheltered by a tent overlooking a UW-Madison construction site included some of computing’s more familiar names.
There was Larry Landweber, an original member of the Internet Hall of Fame for his work in establishing the first network gateways between the United States and countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Tom Rudkin, co-developer of PowerPoint, was there. So was Guri Sohi, an expert in the design of high-performance computer systems and prime inventor of a circuit that helps computers run multiple instructions at once. Brian Pinkerton, who created WebCrawler, was on hand. John Morgridge, who grew Cisco Systems from about 35 employees to 50,000 during his tenure as chief executive officer, spoke about his earliest days in computing.
The occasion? A ceremonial groundbreaking for a 350,000-square-foot home for the School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences, a building that looks to the future of computing on a campus that has long been part of the industry’s past.
Scheduled to be completed in late 2025, the seven-story building will itself reflect the latest in technology while providing a home for a school currently scattered but growing by leaps and bounds. With 3,400 students, computer science is the single largest major on campus. Data science wasn’t launched until 2019 and includes 900 students today. Information science and statistics will also claim space there, as well as some related programs in biostatistics and web data management. Overall CDIS enrollment stands at about 5,000 students.
The School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences is itself a new entity, formed in 2019 after then-Chancellor Rebecca Blank formed a study group to examine how rapid growth in student demand could be met physically as well as administratively. Programs that make up CDIS today were previously spread across campus organizational charts.
A related goal was better serving students in other majors who wanted to take basic computing courses, arguably necessary in today’s world, and better serving Wisconsin companies that needed such talent. It wasn’t so long ago that most “comp sci” students from UW-Madison left the state; today, the tide is turning.
The results are already being noticed. The computer science program moved up five places (from 17th to 12th) in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, which may not be scientific but is reflective of reputational attitudes. It’s likely a recognition that UW-Madison has stepped up its game in many ways.
With a strong base of graduates and others who have touched the program over time, the $260-million cost of the building is being privately funded. Wisconsin-born Morgridge and his wife, Tashia, represent a big chunk of that money. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which patents and licenses university discoveries, also contributed heavily.
There was also a practical reason why no public money has been sought to date: Neither the UW-Madison nor the UW System can borrow money on their own, which is a rarity among major universities, public or private. The state of Wisconsin must authorize projects that involve even a minimal amount of tax dollars, which critics say leads to costly delays and unnecessary management fees beyond ordinary architectural and construction processes.
Meanwhile, just a few blocks away from the new CDIS site on the corner of West Johnson and Orchard streets, the College of Engineering is looking to replace a Stalin-esque building that has long outlived its usefulness. Student demand for an engineering degree rivals computer science, yet UW-Madison is turning down record numbers of students from Wisconsin and elsewhere because there is no place to put them. A proposal for a new building within the engineering campus is pending and requires legislative approval because about half of its cost would be public.
With artificial intelligence coming of age, the CDIS building will likely witness a generational change in computing science. A new engineering building would allow the campus to train more students, to help more companies and to help solve some pressing Wisconsin and world problems. It would be a shame if the CDIS building wasn’t followed by a modern engineering structure to keep UW-Madison among the nation’s research leaders.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com. See below for the groundbreaking celebration video from April 25.