Amazon is making a significant donation to Seattle University to create an endowed chair to lead its Computer Science Department, a move that promises to help the private Jesuit university raise the profile and expand the capabilities of its computer science program.
Seattle University announced the gift on Thursday morning with much gratitude to Amazon — but there’s more to the story.
The university lost its existing chair, Roshanak Roshandel, to the tech giant in December. She resigned from the role to take a full-time position at Amazon as a principal product manager – technical (PMT) for Alexa Experience.
Michael Quinn, dean of the Seattle University College of Science and Engineering, said in a Dec. 11 email to faculty and staff that he worked with Seattle University Advancement to ask Amazon to endow a chair in computer science after Roshandel decided to leave.
Quinn’s email quoted a message from Drew Herdener, an Amazon vice president and Seattle University trustee, saying the company agreed that it was “a golden opportunity for Amazon to help raise the profile and firepower of the person who would replace Roshanak, and in turn the reputation of Seattle U and Seattle U Computer Science.”
The email, obtained independently by GeekWire, described the endowment as a $3 million gift to Seattle University, but it’s not clear if the amount changed as the endowment was finalized. The company and the university declined to confirm the number.
Universities for years have struggled to stave off the poaching of star faculty by technology companies that can offer higher salaries, shares of the company and bonuses. A 2019 study documented the increasing trend of AI professors in the U.S. leaving academia for the private sector.
But at the same time, some of those tech companies have helped universities recruit talent from other academic institutions: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had his company fund two $1 million professorship endowments at the University of Washington in 2012 to woo married tech experts from their academic roles.
“The Amazon Endowed Computer Science Chair will continue to build the visibility and prestige of the computer science department nationally and internationally as it continues its rapid growth in size and quality,” Quinn said in a statement. “It will appeal to exceptional candidates who are drawn to Seattle U’s values around seeking diverse perspectives and focusing on whole-person learning and curiosity.”
Ed Lazowska, a long-time leader at the UW’s School of Computer Science & Engineering, praised Amazon’s gift.
“I think it’s really huge. It’s almost unprecedented,” Lazowska said, adding that when recruiting a department chair from outside, an endowed chair “is a great lure.”
Amazon has supported Seattle University in the past, announcing a $3 million contribution in May 2019 to help fund its new Jim and Janet Sinegal Center for Science and Innovation. The online retail and cloud giant’s support of the UW includes a $10 million gift in 2016 for the construction of a second computer science building.
Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering enrollment has increased by 60% over the past decade, and computer science is the university’s fastest growing program.
The center is slated to open this fall, with renovations of existing buildings completed in 2022. Microsoft also gave $3 million to the center and to establish a program focusing on technology and ethics. The center will allow for enrollment of 600 undergraduate and graduate students by 2025.
In the email, Herdener spelled out the potential benefits of the endowed position: “Amazon wants to help Seattle U hire someone who is going to attract top-notch faculty and students to SU Computer Science and STEM programs in general, and in particular, [Black, Latinx and Native American] and female students — groups that are sorely underrepresented in STEM today. We’re hoping that using the Amazon brand and our gift will help Seattle U make that happen.”
Herdener is on the university’s board of trustees and holds a communications degree from Seattle University. He’s been at Amazon for nearly 18 years and is VP of Worldwide Communications.
Roshandel didn’t choose Amazon out of the blue. She had been working with the company for a couple of years while still at the university. She took a yearlong sabbatical as an Amazon scholar beginning in October 2018 and then worked with the tech giant’s Amazon Care initiative, a virtual healthcare benefit being piloted with employees in Seattle.
Roshandel reflected on her sabbatical for a 2019 university publication, saying, “During the past year, I have attended conferences and interacted with people I never would have met in my academic life, from software security experts to highly successful entrepreneurs who focus on building humanity into technology and making the world a better place.
“The Amazon Scholar program has given me the opportunity to be both an academic and an industry professional. This dual perspective is a real privilege.”
Roshandel was named chair of the Computer Science department in the spring of 2016. She was the first woman to hold the title and became a faculty member at the university in 2005. On her faculty page she described her focus as “software architecture, security and privacy, and reliability modeling and analysis.”
Endowed positions are a tool for recruiting and retaining faculty for a number of reasons, Lazowska said. Endowed chairs and professorships boost the prestige and visibility of a professor and provide flexible discretionary funds that can be applied to any scholarly purpose.
The UW has more than two dozen endowed chairs and professorships in its Computer Science department and is working to grow that number. The department’s professorships are endowed with $1 million in funding while chairs are backed by at least $2 million.
Seattle University currently has endowed positions in multiple departments, but this is its first in Computer Science.
“The Amazon gift to Seattle University will allow us to enhance this first-rate program by recruiting the best faculty and educating students as leaders in service to the industries of our region,” said Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg, in a statement.
Lazowska, who recently stepped down from his position as the Bill & Melinda Gates endowed chair but remains a UW professor, hopes that other tech companies take notice of Amazon’s gift — singling out Facebook in particular.
The social media giant has tried unsuccessfully in the past to nab UW faculty, he said. Google, on the other hand, has sometimes “borrowed” UW professors for a couple of years, paying for post-doctoral fellows to continue running a faculty’s research during their absence.
Regarding Amazon’s actions, “it is incredibly heartwarming to see this happen,” Lazowska said. “It shows once again Amazon’s support of the local tech community and local academic community.”