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  • Ari Betof

John and Tashia Morgridge Pledge Another $125M to Their Alma Mater

The answers to many of the worst problems currently facing humankind are dependent on utilizing computing power and data science, unlike anything we’ve seen in the past. Young people realize this trend, and it's reflected in their choice of studies.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), computer science majors have grown tenfold in the last decade. And data science, a new major launched last fall, is the fastest-growing major on campus. Equally exciting news is that students are increasingly choosing second majors in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

In response to these trends, UW-Madison’s new School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences (CDIS) been designed to facilitate collaboration at the intersection of “technology and humanity.” The school is unique because, unlike at many other universities, it will operate within the College of Letters and Science, not the College of Engineering—a reflection of CDIS’ cross-disciplinary focus. It will bring together the university’s prestigious Computer Science and Statistics departments, as well as the Information School.

It’s hoped that the interdisciplinary nature of CDIS’ programs will drive economic growth and strengthen Wisconsin’s emergence as an innovation center and technology hub. In addition to sponsoring academic research and instructing students, CDIS will host collaborations with community and industry partners.

The manifestation of the CDIS concept has been made possible through the generosity of private donors, most notably John and Tashia Morgridge. The Morgridges have pledged $125 million, of which $50 million is in the form of a one-to-one match challenge grant that will raise another $50 million from other like-minded donors. A further $50 million comes from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the university’s patent-licensing arm.

The School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences (CDIS)

Construction on the new $225-million CDIS is anticipated to kick off early in 2023, and the university hopes to have the school open by the end of 2024. As a result, it has set the deadline for raising the additional $50 million at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year.

Two existing service buildings at the corner of Orchard Street and University Avenue in Madison will be demolished to make way for the 300,000-square-foot, seven-story building. Once finished, it will be the most sustainable building on campus.

However, as Chancellor Rebecca Blank pointed out to the press, this will be more than just another shiny new campus building. “This is about launching a whole new school,” she remarked—a school that will help the university in its stride to create a more inclusive and diverse tech community in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest.

The university's Center for High Throughput Computing, the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute, and the Department of Biostatistics & Medical Informatics will all be homed in the new building.

CDIS research collaborations are already proceeding. They will focus on understanding how social media shapes and exposes public opinion, investigating ways for visually impaired workers to interact with data, expediting clinical trials, and the development of improved 3D imaging, to name just a few study topics.

Who are the Morgridges?

A UW-Madison alumnus, John Morgridge is better known as the former president, CEO, and chairman of the board of Cisco Systems, a leading global innovator and supplier of computer networking products. He became CEO in 1988 and took the company public in 1990. He stepped down as CEO in 1995, becoming a billionaire a year later, thanks to Cisco's rising stock value.

Morgridge and his wife, Tashia, a former special education teacher, author, and UW-Madison graduate, are avid philanthropists who have signed the Giving Pledge. They've dedicated a significant portion of their giving to causes in Wisconsin, where they both grew up.

In the early 1990s, the Morgridges formed the Tosa Foundation, named after their shared high school in the town of Wauwatosa. Their gift of $175 million helped establish the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars, which provides college tuition grants for low-income students at public universities throughout the state. Their generosity has also enabled the Wisconsin Technology Initiative, which funds technology upgrades at K-12 public schools.

Including this latest donation, the Morgridges’ gifts to UW-Madison total more than $250 million. Their 2014 gift of $100 million was the largest in the university’s history from a single donor. Those funds established the Morgridge Institute for Research. Ten years prior to that, a gift of $32 million allowed for the modernization and expansion of the School of Education building.

The Morgridges have emphasized their strategic interest in supporting their home state, explaining that their gifts can have a real impact there.

“It [Wisconsin] is a place where you can get things done. It has a scale that is doable…you can meet the people that you need to meet and get the work done that you’re hoping to get done," Tashia said in an interview with The Bridgespan Group.

The Importance of Donor Funding

Had UW-Madison gone through the state budget process and made use of taxpayer-supported borrowing, the School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences would likely have taken eight years from design to opening. Much can change in that timeframe, especially in the field of technology.

Right now, the College of Letters and Science has more than 3,600 students (undergraduate and graduate) and struggles to secure large enough lecture halls to accommodate student demand. As a result, there are waitlists for courses ranging from robotics to cybersecurity, machine learning, and more.

Thanks to the Morgridges and others, private donations have enabled the university to respond appropriately and timeously to this demand. This will be the second school at UW-Madison funded entirely by donors, the first being the Hamel Music Center, which opened in 2019.

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