U.Va. receives historic $120 million gift to establish new School of Data Science

Proposed new school will offer doctoral and undergraduate degree programs

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Jaffray Woodriff, leader of the Quantitative Foundation and CEO of Quantitative Investment Management, is a graduate of the University.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

The Quantitative Foundation, led by local hedge fund magnate Jaffray Woodriff, has pledged $120 million to establish the University’s first School of Data Science, breaking a record to become the largest private gift in the University’s 200-year history. University President Jim Ryan formally announced its plan for the new school at a ceremony in the Rotunda Friday morning.

The School of Data Science will become the University’s 12th school and first since the 2007 creation of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. The new school — which will be created in two to three years — is aimed at providing students with the resources to learn and conduct research on the field of data science, with a focus on addressing ethical, social and political issues related to technology.

“This is obviously a historic day because of the size of the gift and because of the fact that we don’t open new schools every day,” Ryan said in his announcement speech. “My hope is that we can build one of the most advanced and comprehensive schools of data science in the world, focused on using data in service of the public good.” 

The gift will fund an array of research initiatives at the University, including education analytics to improve the student learning experience, as well as expanding current research on biomedicine and precision health.

Jaffray and Merrill Woodriff, the billionaire family behind the Quantitative Foundation, have donated to the University before. Both graduates of the University, the Woodriff family provided a $10 million grant in 2014 used to establish the Data Science Institute, which will be integrated into the School of Data Science.

“I believe the decision to be [one of] the first — to elevate the Institute of Data Science to the level of a school — further emboldens this University to continue to be a leader in the field, which I believe plays a central role in shaping our future,” Jaffray Woodriff said.

Woodriff has a diverse portfolio of business activities, including serving as CEO of Quantitative Investment Management — a Charlottesville-based hedge fund with more than $2.8 billion under management today — and as an angel investor in the local startup and entrepreneurial community. 

The foundation’s $120 million gift — which will be matched by funds from the University’s Bicentennial Professors Fund and Bicentennial Scholars Fund for a total of roughly $220 million — is expected to go towards a new 70,000 square foot building for the school, faculty and administration, doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships, and an endowed fund for visiting scholars from other schools.

The School of Data Science is currently in the design phase, according to Ryan. Before becoming an official school, the University needs approval from the Faculty Senate, Board of Visitors and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. 

Under the proposed plan, the school will operate as a satellite or center rather than a department. The University hopes this will allow the school to collaborate with other schools on Grounds, including areas like ethics, policy and law, allowing faculty to hold joint appointments in various disciplines. The University has not chosen a site for the center.

Former University President Teresa Sullivan started the conversation about establishing a School of Data Science when the University created the Data Science Institute in 2014. In an interview with the Cavalier Daily, Sullivan said she now anticipates the University to see an increase in research expenditures that are consistent with most new schools.

“I think this school will push us even faster because every school benefits from it,” Sullivan said. “Suppose you have a professor in McIntire who has a great database. Now he’s going to have access to a data science PhD student. Think about the medical school where data is transforming the way medicine is practiced.”

Ryan stated that the School of Data Science will offer doctoral and undergraduate degree programs as well as certificate programs that can be combined with any major. He told The Cavalier Daily that he does not anticipate rising tuition costs associated with the addition of a new school but does expect to see modest growth in the number of students applying to the University over time.

Phil Bourne, current director of the Data Science Institute, will serve as the school’s acting dean. Bourne said that students will be eligible to apply for the School of Data Science in their third year of enrollment at the University.

Governor Ralph Northam (D-Va.) and Congressman Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) also spoke at the announcement ceremony about how they believe data science and technology will help grow the economy of Virginia.

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