The Former Tech Attorney Funding Data Crunching at Dartmouth

A philanthropist and longtime attorney for Microsoft gave $10 million to amp up Dartmouth College’s computer science program, specifically to apply complex computing and data to other fields, including neuroscience, the environment, and even social sciences and humanities. Chalk up another one for big data. 

The gift from Bill Neukom kicks off the university’s initiative to create clusters of study around globally important issues, and will establish three new faculty working with massive sets of data, often called "big data." It’s the latest in Dartmouth’s history of combining computer science with liberal arts, dating back to the creation of the BASIC programming language at the school in 1964.

The donation establishes the William H. Neukom Academic Cluster in Computational Science, a follow-up to the donor’s $22 million gift in 2004 that created the Neukom Institute for Computational Science. The gift will fund faculty, a postdoctoral fellow, and undergraduate research, and will be partially matched with $5 million out of an anonymous $100 million gift Dartmouth received recently, earmarked largely for the creation of these academic clusters.

The focus of the computer science cluster will be applying computing and analysis of data sets to real world problems. Specifically mentioned: using image analysis in geography, archaeology and environmental policy; creating simulations to analyze health, climate and the environment; analyzing networks in fields like neuroscience, but also economics; and using data to invigorate social and behavioral sciences like English, history, and political science. And as proselytizers of big data have a flair for the hyperbolic, even the foundations of our very universe are on the menu for the new initiative. 

The goal, as with many of the data science programs bubbling up on campuses nationwide, will be taking data and extending it across academia. It’s a fitting endeavor for the New Hampshire college, as Dartmouth has a long history of plugging computers into academia. Back in 1964, two professors at the school first pushed the idea that liberal arts students needed to learn computer science, which led to the user-friendly BASIC coding language that would eventually enter widespread use among programmers.  

One of the new professorships will be named for BASIC co-creator Thomas Kurtz, and the announcement of the gift came with the 50th anniversary of BASIC.  

It’s also the continuation of a longstanding relationship between William H. Neukom and Dartmouth. Neukom graduated in 1964 with a degree in philosophy, then went on to earn a law degree at Stanford University. His early interaction with computing at Dartmouth must have been formative, as he would spend 25 years as the head lawyer at Microsoft, defending the company against an onslaught of antitrust complaints and its battles with Apple. He also sat on the Dartmouth Board of Trustees, was president of the American Bar Association, and CEO of the San Francisco Giants.

Now retired, Neukom deals mostly in philanthropy, and has been very good to his former schools, staying closely involved and making large donations. Aside from the computer science gifts to Dartmouth, he gave $20 million to Stanford in 2006 to construct a new law school building. He also founded the World Justice Project and the Neukom Family Foundation, which he runs with his children. 

The Neukom gift to Dartmouth is one of multiple recent, large contributions for the pursuit of data science or use of big data. Most recently, the University of Virginia and the University of Rochester each received $10 million gifts to establish institutes studying the subject. It's becoming a trendy subject for alumni who want to keep their schools on the cutting edge. 

Read more about the big data philanthropy craze here.