School of Data Science responds to early concerns, logistical questions

Enrollment applications for the School projected to open as early as fall 2019

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Phil Bourne is the acting dean of the School of Data Science, the current director of the Data Science Institute and a biomedical engineering professor.

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

The University recently announced the establishment of the School of Data Science following a $120 million private gift — the largest in University history — from the Quantitative Foundation, a Charlottesville-based hedge fund led by Class of 1991 McIntire graduate Jaffray Woodriff. 

The School of Data Science will become the University’s 12th school and the first since the creation of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy in 2007, which was established by a $100 million gift from media mogul and entrepreneur Frank Batten. Batten graduated from the University in 1950 before becoming chairman and CEO of Landmark Communications, Inc. in 1967 and founding The Weather Channel in 1982. 

According to the CPI Inflation Calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — which works by calculating average price changes over time for a “basket” of predetermined consumer goods —  $100 million in 2007 has roughly the same buying power as $124 million in 2018, making the Batten school millions of dollars more expensive to establish than the School of Data Science. 

The School of Data Science was conceived during former University President Teresa Sullivan’s tenure, during which she worked to secure letters of support from all University deans while conversing frequently with the Quantitative Foundation. The predecessor to the School of Data Science — the Data Science Institute — was likewise established during Sullivan’s presidency with a $10 million grant from the Quantitative Foundation. 

“The Data Science Institute was born around the dinner table at Carr’s Hill, where some interested faculty and alumni were discussing the data explosion and our limited progress in analytics,” Sullivan said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “I am a demographer, and the issues of sheer analytic capacity and protecting individual privacy are major ones in my field.” 

The Data Science Institute currently offers a master’s degree program in data science and will enroll students for a new online master's degree program this summer. Sullivan said that a significant demand exists for degrees, certificates and courses at undergraduate levels. When the School of Data Science is established, the Data Science Institute will be integrated into the School of Data Science, and the University will expand the online master’s degree program. The School of Data Science will also offer undergraduate degree programs and certificate programs that can be combined with majors from other University schools. 

With the recent announcement of Amazon’s second headquarters in northern Virginia — only two hours away from Charlottesville — the demand for data science skills in Virginia is likely to rapidly increase. Sullivan said that the program would allow students to expand their career options and become better qualified to fill some of these vacant positions.

“The addition of a data science credential will help students from any major in opening a wider range of career choices for them,” Sullivan said.  “Because the graduate students in data science will need to demonstrate that they can work with people from a variety of knowledge domains, faculty in the other schools will be able to get skilled assistance in analyzing data for their research or class project. The world is full of data, but not full of people with the capacity to analyze and make sense of the data.”

Phil Bourne is the acting dean of the School of Data Science, the current director of the Data Science Institute and a biomedical engineering professor. Bourne said the University’s plans to establish and announce the school were not contingent on Amazon’s recent announcement to move part of their second headquarters to northern Virginia.

“[The School of Data Science] was in the works before [the Amazon decision] was even apparent,” Bourne said. “Amazon is only a part of what’s happening. … It’s clear that there are data analytics needs across every sector.”

Initial Criticisms

Initial concerns in regard to the School of Data Science included those about housing and how the University will accommodate a potentially expanded student body. History Prof. John Edwin Mason said that on-Grounds housing accommodations must be built into plans for the new school. The University has yet to name a site for the School.

“[The University’s] failure to properly accommodate its students, forcing them on to private housing market, is a huge driver of the unaffordability crisis in Charlottesville right now,” said Mason. “A new data science school is not a bad thing in and of itself, but built into the plans for this school has to be substantial, significant ways to address the housing crisis.”

The increasing rent costs in Charlottesville have risen to a particular salience in the last decade, in part due to the rise in popularity of off-Grounds student housing. As the University student body has grown, demand has increased for housing close to central Grounds, resulting in rising rent costs in areas surrounding the University. The University will be opening the on-Grounds Brandon Avenue apartments in fall 2019, which will provide 313 beds for students. 

As of now, there are no plans to build additional on-Grounds housing complexes alongside the new school, Bourne said. However, that decision may change when President Ryan announces his strategic planning effort — which will collect input from across the University in part through the “Ours to Shape” campaign — at the end of this academic year. Announced by Ryan during a Board of Visitors meeting in September 2018, the plan is how Ryan will outline goals and growth for the University in future years. 

Bourne said that if the Strategic Planning Committee calls for expanded student housing, the School of Data Science might revisit the idea of incorporating new residential housing. 

But Bourne predicted that the University will not see an increase in undergraduate enrollment — or a consequential increase in demand for housing — with the creation of the new school. 

“There was discussion about a residential college, but that isn’t going forward at this point,” Bourne said. “For the time being, not knowing the results [of the Strategic Planning Committee’s efforts], we’re kind of working on the premise being that the increase numbers will come predominantly from online, which doesn’t require residential housing.”

Online enrollment is predicted to increase as the University begins to offer the expanded online master’s degree program in data science. 

“The goal is to turn out a smaller number of quality students which are leaders,” Bourne said. “Rather than increasing on-Grounds numbers dramatically, it’s taking the students we have and giving them the opportunity to increase their analytical skills.”

Bourne said that students will be able to enroll into the school beginning in their third year at the University, and enrollment will ideally begin for the online masters’ program in the fall of 2019. The University must get approval from the Faculty Senate, Board of Visitors and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia before the school is officially established and ready to enroll students. 

The Impact on Charlottesville 

Both Bourne and President Ryan predicted that the School of Data Science will lead to improvements in Charlottesville and the Commonwealth through an increase in business, finance, healthcare and education analytics. 

However, Mason said he believes the “trickle down” effects of the school will likely be limited, saying that the University’s failure to pay many of its employees a living wage dims the shining prospects of the school’s establishment.   

“It’s wonderful to have this contribution, but U.Va. has been under pressure for under 50 years to make sure that everybody who works here receives an adequate living wage, and the University still hasn’t gotten to that point, where everybody who works here receives a living wage,” Mason said. “To bring in a new school, with new people, that will put additional pressure on the City without building in, somehow, ways to address the housing crisis and ways to make sure everybody gets paid a living wage, this seems to me to be a big mistake.”

Charlottesville resident and activist Matthew Gillikin recently posted a Twitter thread highlighting research on the Quantitative Foundation’s donation history from 2011 to 2016. During this time frame, the foundation donated over $25 million — $12 million of that going to the University — with the other largest donations going to elite private schools, such as St. Anne’s-Belfield in Charlottesville and Woodberry Forest in Orange. 

“The initial press release declared this donation would have a ‘transformative effect on UVA’s ability to serve the commonwealth, nation, and world’ - leaving out the city and county surrounding UVA,” Gillikin said in a direct Twitter message to The Cavalier Daily. “This parallels the work of Woodriff’s charitable foundation, which has done relatively little to address the most pressing social issues in Charlottesville and the surrounding areas.”

The University does not decide what to do with money from its donors — the allocation of a monetary contribution is determined by the respective donor. Donors are able to give to the University area of their choice — some of these being outlined and detailed on the University’s giving website

While other smaller donations by the Foundation were made to local charities and nonprofits — including the Tom Tom Founders Festival and the Boys & Girls Club of Charlottesville — Gillikin tweeted that the Foundation’s donation history reflected “spotty histories of positive social change,” adding that it was reasonable to be skeptical that such a large donation would be made “to a university that won't pay a living wage.”

The first calls for a living wage emerged after the the University desegregated in the 1960s, and according to members of the Living Wage Campaign at U.Va., their movement is the longest-running unsuccessful living wage campaign at a collegiate institution, with members still attempting to persuade the University to pay its workers higher wages. 

“The University … has been a prosperous university,” Mason said. “That has meant poverty for the overwhelming number of African Americans who work for this University. They receive poverty wages.”

Currently, the University pays workers a minimum wage of $12.38, while Aramark, the provider for University dining services, pays its employees $10.65. Meanwhile, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator — which estimates the living wage needed to support individuals and families based on the cost of basic necessities — a living wage in Charlottesville stands at $12.02 for a single adult or $16.95 for a family of four in which both parents work.

Mason said the University’s highest priority should be to mend its relationship with the Charlottesville community, saying that the University should institute a living wage and address its role in the affordable housing crisis to strengthen town-gown relations.

“Data science is in and of itself a neutral thing,” Mason said. “It can be used for good purposes and for bad purposes, and we shall see how it’s going to be used in Charlottesville.”

Jaffrey Woodriff and the Quantitative Foundation did not respond by press time for a comment. 

Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that the Data Science Institute only offers an online master's degree program in data science and has been changed to reflect the master's degree program on grounds and the introduction of a new online program this summer. In addition, this article has been updated to reflect that Phil Bourne is the acting dean of the School of Data Science, rather than the interim dean as the article previously stated. 

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