Going Geek: A Liberal Arts College Brings In Big Money to Boost Science and Tech

 boston college. photo:  Zhong Chen/shutterstock

boston college. photo:  Zhong Chen/shutterstock

Boston College, where about two-thirds of students graduate with humanities and social sciences degrees, is building out its presence in science and engineering, and an alum who went on to become an Apple executive is helping with the transition.  

It’s the latest example of a school drawing support from a donor to kick its hard science offerings up a notch, both to keep up with trends and to be more competitive in a tough time for higher ed funding.

Boston College is raising a total of $150 million to build a new science facility, part of a $300 million investment in the sciences that introduces new majors in engineering and applied sciences. Of the $100 million the school has raised so far, $25 million comes from Phil Schiller, senior vice president at Apple and BC trustee, and wife Kim Gassett-Schiller, making the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society the centerpiece of the new facility. The multidisciplinary institute seeks to develop leaders in science and technology, develop new tools and tech to solve societal problems, and promote partnerships with industry and the public sector.

While they're becoming a much higher priority than they have been in the university’s history, BC has long offered science programs. Schiller himself studied biology before graduating in 1982. He would become the senior VP of marketing for Apple, and a force behind some of the company’s most successful products. Other philanthropy from the Schillers includes a recent $10 million gift to Bowdoin to support study of oceans and the environment. 

This growing emphasis is something BC has been moving toward for a while now, trying to build momentum in the sciences, and in 2016, it landed Research 1 designation, the highest such classification. 

It’s also part of some larger trends in philanthropic support for universities, both for interdisciplinary centers and amping up presence in science and tech, often to strengthen relationships with industry. It also tracks a push lately to integrate study of business and tech with a well-rounded liberal arts education. 

The Schiller gift is reminiscent of a donation to Cornell and Cornell Tech to bring together the humanities and tech innovation. Cornell’s philanthropy-fueled creation of Cornell Tech is another example of this trend toward hard science and engineering, with some of the liberal arts faculty even raising concerns about the school drifting too much toward tech and business. 

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On some level, this is a matter of universities keeping up with the times, considering the tech industry is dominating the U.S. economy and likely the minds of a lot of incoming freshmen. Problems related to health, energy and the environment, all priorities for the Schiller Institute, increasingly require multiple disciplines and some level of computer science expertise. 

Of course, as always, there’s financial motivation. Universities across the country are seeking out new ways to draw funds and compete for students and faculty. One such strategy, aside from fundraising huge sums from wealthy donors, is to become more of a presence in science, innovation and entrepreneurship. Not only is it a draw for students, but it can lead to lucrative industry partnerships and university-held patents. It could also lead to more opportunities for big gifts like this one, increasing the potential for a BC alum to become the next tech billionaire and return the favor with a generous donation.