AMHERST – The University of Massachusetts on Thursday celebrated the groundbreaking of a $125 million facility for its computer science program that officials say will place the university in a position to be a leader in education and research in the digital frontier.
“This is an important day in the continual evolution of the commonwealth,” said UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.
The prospect of thunderstorms forced things inside, making the groundbreaking ceremony more symbolic than actual.
Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and UMass President Martin Meehan joined Subbaswamy, campus leaders, and local legislators for the ceremony.
The construction of the new facility, a 90,000-square-foot building, was prompted by the growth in the computer and information sciences program at UMass over the last few years.
The state contributed $75 million toward the construction costs.
The new building, to be located in an empty parcel along Governor’s Drive just east of the existing building, is expected to be ready by 2025.
In addition to the state contribution, the project was aided by an $18 million donation from UMass Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Manning and his wife Donna Manning.
The $18 million was part of a $50 million donation the Mannings made to the UMass system last year, the largest in UMass history.
The college was renamed the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences.
Through the Mannings’ generosity, Subbaswamy said, “We will further position the Manning College as an evolutionary force in the industry by attracting top faculty any by increasing access to the program.”
“Today we launch the next chapter for New England’s number one computer science program,” said UMass Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Trish Serio.
The college already has 1,700 undergraduates, 400 master’s students, and 280 seeking doctorates. As enrollment has grown in the last five years, the college has hired 40 new faculty over that time, bringing the total to 74.
Serio said the college from its beginning has worked closely with industry and has been a leader in the areas of artificial intelligence, search engines, and networks. In fiscal 2021, the college brought in $21 million in research grants from government and industry sources.
But while UMass officials spoke of the campus being poised to be a part of the digital frontier, Baker and Manning each cautioned that the college needs to teach more than just technology
“Everything is going digital. Part of me sees that as incredibly exciting, and part of me sees it as absolutely terrifying,” Baker said.
He said it is absolutely critical that colleges are poised to be able “to teach, research and understand the consequences of both.”
Baker cited the example of social media spiraling in the last decade from the promise of a world-wide medium for sharing information to an instant means of sharing misinformation, insults and lies.
That means not just teaching technology, but ethics, he said.
He noted that the college’s motto is “computing for the common good,” and that a part of that is teaching right and wrong. “We’ll be doing amazing work here, but we need to prepare people to take a hard look at what we mean when we say ‘the common good,” Baker said.
Manning did not attend the ceremony in person but appeared remotely.
The CEO of MFS Financial Services, Manning said he knows from experience that advances in computers will continue to leap forward. And like Baker, he said, that scares him.
He said he used the power of computers to gain success in business “but I have also seen the destruction they can cause.”
Technology without a foundation of ethics to reign it in is a problem, Manning said. “And I’m really worried about it.”
Quantum computing has the power to reshape society in ways people cannot imagine, and it is important that schools emphasize ethics, he said.
“The computer power right around the corner in the next decade will be astounding,” he said
Without training today’s students of the potential dangers, he said, “We’re in big trouble.”
Baker, who is stepping down in January after not seeking re-election, was hailed by Subbaswamy as a true friend to UMass over the last eight years. He said Baker is no small part of the campus’s successes over that time.
When it was Baker’s turn to speak, the governor returned the compliment.
“Right back at you,” he said to Subbaswamy. “You are the gold standard that all chancellors will be judged by.”
Subbaswamy, appointed 10 years ago, announced he will retire in June.
Speaking of the UMass system as a whole, Baker said “My father used to say there are people who want to have a job and there are people who want to do the job, and there’s a big difference.” Throughout the UMass system, from Meehan and Subbaswamy on down, he said, “there is a long line of people who are doers.”