It might seem like an unusual partnership—a 170-year-old life insurance company and a new center at a major university focused on the complex world of data science—but that’s just what MassMutual and Boston University announced on Tuesday. MassMutual is donating $1 million to BU’s Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences (CDS), making it the first partnership for the fledgling academic unit.
The money will be spread out over three years, with two primary purposes:
- To create the MassMutual Professor of the Practice Fund, which BU will use to hire one non-tenure-track faculty member who brings industry expertise to classroom teaching and laboratory research focused on societally relevant real-world data science applications.
- To launch the MassMutual Fund for the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences. That fund will have several aims—hire a program manager and software engineer to support data science experiential learning activities; organize diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the center, through community events like high school hackathons, to bring more women and people of color into the field of computing and data science; and award approximately six $10,000 MassMutual Externship stipends to undergraduate students.
For BU, the partnership represents an important step at a critical moment. The University is two years into constructing the largest building in its 180-year history, a 305-foot-tall tower on Commonwealth Avenue that will become the Center for Computing & Data Sciences. Designed to resemble a stack of books, the center, slated to open sometime in 2022, will look out on the Charles River and over campus.
When it’s done, the imposing 17-story building will house BU’s mathematics and statistics and computer science departments and the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, as well as the newly launched Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences. Azer Bestavros, associate provost for computing and data sciences, is building out that multidisciplinary academic unit to bolster efforts to hire and retain faculty whose disciplines intersect with computing and data sciences and to introduce new undergraduate and graduate programs.
That multipronged commitment and investment into the exploding field of data science by a major urban research institution is enticing to Springfield, Mass.–based MassMutual. Glassdoor ranks data scientist as the second most sought-after job in America, and a recent news headline proclaims, “Data scientists continue to be the sexiest hires around.”
“Talent is hard to find. So one of the biggest drivers for us is the talent at both the undergraduate and graduate level at BU, and gaining access to that talent pipeline for recruiting,” says Adam Fox, MassMutual’s head of data. “On the research side, BU is standing up a phenomenal new center for computing and data science. Its postdocs and undergraduate students have skills, knowledge, and experience that can benefit our growth as well.”
Referring to the CDS approach for widening the pipeline and closing the skills gap in computing and data science, Fox also says MassMutual is impressed with BU’s efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion. “BU does a fantastic job at outreach to underrepresented groups, and that’s a great opportunity and priority for us, as well.”
Although its history goes back to its founding in 1851, MassMutual today is as reliant on data and technology to grow and function as tech industry and healthcare titans. It builds complex algorithms based on data, creating new products to best serve its hundreds of thousands of customers, as well as its more than 6,000 employees.
Fox notes how Amazon, in particular, has changed consumers’ expectations, with products being delivered in hours or days. “Consumers expect that,” he says. “Those are experiences we are producing from a financial security perspective.”
MassMutual’s business revolves heavily around using science, engineering, technology, and data partnerships to help inform strategic business decisions. By securely leveraging data about people’s age, health, lifestyle, and other factors to create better policies for its customers, both the company and its customers benefit. In many ways, it’s not unlike how the Center for Computing & Data Sciences plans to build its multidisciplinary curriculum—by bringing together disciplines at BU to better integrate data science into a wide variety of industries, from healthcare to communications to engineering and more.
A core part of MassMutual’s business is underwriting life insurance policies, which is historically a manual process. That includes filling out an application, submitting blood test results, and other steps to help the company determine the best policy. The rapid availability of data has changed all that, Fox says, and moved much of the process online.
“The last few years, we have leveraged data to innovate and create machine learning capability that can perform this more accurately and rapidly than a human can,” he says, “moving it from weeks and months to seconds, and better assess risk for our company and clients.”
The more that the company can eliminate or reduce human bias from its equations and algorithms, he says, the more likely it is to arrive at better policies and self-assessment tools for its customers.
One of the most difficult of MassMutual’s processes involves the handling of claims submitted by a customer after a loved one has died. “Claims means someone is going through a tragic time in their life,” Fox says, “and we want to be able process claims much more rapidly than if a human was doing it.”
Through partnerships with BU, MassMutual hopes to widen its talent pipeline for new hires and bring on board people already skilled in utilizing data science. The goal is that students interested in data-based fields, but not attracted to tech companies, will be attracted to businesses also reliant on data, like health insurance companies, hospitals, or financial services firms.
Although MassMutual has relationships with other universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Vermont, the investment with BU is both ambitious and unique because it’s on the ground floor of a new academic program, and a new center, about to launch.
“They are interested in working with us on envisioning and developing new kinds of data science education, research, and training experiences that would be of value to a broad range of verticals,” says Bestavros, a William Fairfield Warren Professor and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of computer science. “CDS is all about democratizing access to data science talent and capacities by public and private sector organizations that are not strictly in tech. By working together with MassMutual on this shared vision, we are more likely to succeed.”
And by launching the professor of the practice position, MassMutual and BU can start to bring in experts from the business world to teach students about real-world applications of data and data science.
The professor of the practice will “engage in research—often research that is applied and practical—that aligns with CDS Impact Hubs and co-Labs and augments other research conducted at Boston University,” the agreement states, adding that the person holding the position will have a renewable three-year term appointment. Such faculty members “also provide meaningful mentoring and advising to both undergraduate and graduate students informed by their industry experiences and can bring to bear their professional networks for the purpose of creating critical experiential learning opportunities.”
Fox is more succinct: “The professor of practice idea is really novel, and that person’s practical experience will be very impactful for students.”
Additionally, he says, “the building reflects a level of commitment from BU. And having all of these new efforts take place there was exciting for us.”