MIT to launch $1 billion College of Computing in September 2019

College expected to increase emphasis on joint Course 6 majors, computational ethics

President L. Rafael Reif announced Monday the creation of a new college at MIT, set to open next September, dedicated to the study of computing and artificial intelligence.

Named after Blackstone Group Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman, whose $350 million donation forms the bulk of the $1 billion commitment, the College of Computing is expected to create 50 new faculty positions and foster collaboration between departments, though many logistical details are still unclear or undecided.

The college will absorb the “majority of EECS students,” according to an FAQ published by MIT News. The Computer Science and Artificial Laboratory (CSAIL), the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and the MIT Quest for Intelligence are also expected to join.

However, Institute leadership does not intend for the college to be an insular Course 6 bastion. Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88 described the college in an interview with The Tech as a “school plus the connective tissue” between other disciplines: hence its distinction as a “college” among the five existing schools.

“If you think about the five schools as verticals, think about the college as cross-cutting,” Dean of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan told The Tech. Twenty-five of the 50 added faculty will be “bridge” faculty with joint appointments across departments.

The most significant long-term change students can expect to see in their education as a result of the college is a bigger variety of joint-degree programs with Course 6, Chandrakasan said. These joint majors, such as 6-14, have seen “significant growth in enrollments,” but created problems in areas such as advising, which Chandrakasan said the new faculty will help to alleviate.

“I hope that the College will eventually have some autonomy in degree requirements for majors within the College,” Srini Devadas, EECS professor and a 6-7 oversight officer, wrote in an email to The Tech. “I imagine a very broad Computing major that uses the current CS minor as the CS requirement of the major and allows many tracks, each offered by a host of departments across the five Schools to produce new ‘majors’ as diverse as computational journalism and quantum computing.”

Though the college launches next year, students may not experience tangible differences in their education by that date, Reif said in an interview with The Tech. “Things will probably look more or less the same” come September, Reif said. The college will need more time to hire faculty and develop degree programs.

Hiring is expected to be complete in approximately five years, and the expansion will represent a five percent growth in MIT’s total faculty, according to the FAQ. The graduate student population is expected to grow naturally as a result, while any impact on the undergraduate class size remains undetermined.

Dean of HASS Melissa Nobles told The Tech that one new program under consideration is a concentration in computational cultures, which will group together anthropologists, political scientists, and other humanities experts and students to think about “the larger societal impacts of technology and computing.” Discussion of the program began over the summer, spearheaded by Director of Science, Technology, and Society Jennifer Light.

A new building of an estimated 150,000 to 160,000 square feet will be built for the college, with an anticipated completion date of 2022. (The newly opened MIT.nano facility is 200,000 square feet, for comparison.)

The location of the building has yet to be determined. Schmidt declined to list specific locations under consideration but confirmed that the project will involve new construction, either on an empty site or by tearing down an existing building.

EECS faculty will likely retain a mixture of affiliations — some with the School of Engineering, some with the College of Computing, and others with both, Chandrakasan said. The electrical engineering side of Course 6 will remain strongly associated with the School of Engineering.

MIT leaders included faculty in discussions about the college after MIT’s Turing laureates called for a school of computing last September, according to Devadas. Meetings started in January and engaged over 400 faculty members, Chandrakasan said at the faculty meeting.  

Devadas, who had penned his own letter supporting the school in November, wrote that he has “already heard the ‘shock and awe’ emanating from [his] colleagues at Berkeley.”

Patrick Winston ’65, a professor of artificial intelligence and computer science, also lauded the move, calling the decision to denote it a college (rather than a school) a “stroke of genius” in an email to The Tech. “The leadership of the College of Computing can think about how to serve all of MIT, not just the College of Computing itself,” he wrote.

“In the short term, the benefits will come from research in machine learning, especially applications of deep learning,” Winston wrote. “In the long term, I have a very romantic dream of discoveries on par with those of Copernicus, who showed where we are in the universe, with those of Darwin, who showed where we are in evolution, and with those of Watson and Crick, who explained our biology.”

Schmidt said there has been no backlash from non-computer science faculty over the expansion of MIT’s computational research and education resources. “Everyone feels their field is being transformed by computing,” he said, though he mentioned he did hear some “concern” and “angst” over what the transformation would look like.

“I think of myself as a computer scientist and I don't work in AI in the traditional sense. However, I have a broad view of AI and also think that AI has broadened in scope over the past few years,” Devadas wrote. “AI requires CS theory and CS algorithms, and computer hardware to run on.”

Many practical details of the college are still up in the air. “The college has been created, but it has not been designed,” Susan Silbey, chair of the faculty, said in a faculty meeting Wednesday.

A dean must be appointed, and the search advisory committee is still being finalized, according to the FAQ. The committee will be chaired by Institute Professor Ronald Rivest, Chandrakasan announced at the faculty meeting.

Administrators are also still thinking over whether a more technical or humanistic background will be prioritized in hiring interdisciplinary faculty, Schmidt said in the interview.

Schwarzman, whose donation is tied for the largest individual gift in MIT’s history but who has also been criticized by some for his ties to President Trump, “won’t be engaged in running the academic side” of the college and holds MIT under “no conditions” regarding the donation, Reif said.

Beyond Schwarzman’s contribution, MIT has secured an additional $300 million “through other fundraising,” the FAQ said.

The New York Times wrote in its headline that MIT had announced plans for a “college of artificial intelligence.” Schmidt quipped at the faculty meeting that this phrasing “sells newspapers,” but Reif’s letter to the community Monday, which mentioned AI six times, centered all three of the listed goals of the college around the development and delivery of AI-tools.

The announcement for the college comes just months after the launch of two other AI-focused initiatives, the MIT Quest for Intelligence in February 2018 and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab in September 2017.

Chandrakasan and Reif differentiated the programs by emphasizing that the Quest and the IBM Watson collaboration were primarily structured to drive AI research, whereas the college aims to advance AI (and computing) education, in part inspired by the Quest’s success.

Reif justified the decision to invest the money and resources into AI rather than another priority. “Instead of saying that we’re going to just put a billion dollars on climate change,” he cited as an example in the interview, “we’re putting it on the foundations of what will help everything, including climate change.”

Both Reif’s letter and the FAQ called for ethical and societal concerns to be woven into the new college and its curricula.

Nobles said the plan is not to ask students to “take an ethics course and go along their way” but is instead geared towards creating a cultural change. Specifically, Nobles envisions the faculty members who are experts in humanistic fields to engage with computer science faculty and discuss ethical implications of their work.

The creation of the College of Computing is the first major change to MIT’s structure since 1950, when SHASS and Sloan were formed.

Zoe Anderson contributed reporting.