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New $10 Million Endowment to Advance Data Science Institute

The University of Virginia today announced the commitment of a $10 million gift that establishes an endowment to support its new Data Science Institute.

The institute advances the University’s aspiration to meet growing national needs in the complex and rapidly expanding field of data analytics, storage, security and ethics. U.Va. founded the center in 2013 and it represents one of 15 key strategies embodied in the pillars of the University’s new strategic plan.

“The University of Virginia has a tremendous opportunity to play a leadership role in the field of data science,” Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon said. “This represents one of the key areas of emphasis in our strategic plan, and the gift announced today provides immediate and sustainable momentum. The University deeply appreciates the vision behind this investment.”

The institute will offer instruction and conduct research across disciplines that include computation, science, law, engineering, mathematics, statistics, commerce, social science, humanities and more. It functions as an integrated program, providing students integrated projects across multiple disciplines. The approach will provide U.Va. a competitive edge in higher education, but more importantly reflects the need for a broad strategy when it comes to effectively interpreting meaning from rivers of data that flow from disparate sources such as e-commerce, environmental monitoring systems and much more.

“Today’s society generates massive amounts of data – rapidly and in many forms,” said Don Brown, William Stansfield Calcott Professor of Engineering and Applied Science and the founding director of the U.Va. Data Science Institute. “It’s difficult but increasingly important to be able to make sense out of the data. Our goal is to achieve recognized excellence in education and research in the interdisciplinary field of data science.”  University leaders long have recognized the potential for U.Va. to grow its data science expertise and programs. Development of a new strategic plan during the past year crystallized that interest. And when the Board of Visitors voted in November to support the core elements of the new Cornerstone Plan, it came with an explicit endorsement of the proposed new institute for data science, sometimes referred to as “big data.”

Brown and his colleagues have focused early attention on establishing curriculum for a master’s of data science degree program for the fall. Plans also include an undergraduate minor in data science and eventually a Ph.D. program.

The institute already has hosted summits that brought together students and faculty to explore issues they have experienced dealing with huge data sets, with a focus on discovering how those from different disciplines can work together to solve common problems. Following the larger summits, smaller sessions will focus more specifically on areas such as ethics, data management and security, and analytics.

“With its system of student self-governance built upon a community of trust, the University is positioned very well to develop best practices regarding the ethical considerations that arise with the ability to analyze and interpret massive data,” Brown said.

The $10 million gift will be provided in increments during the coming six years by the Quantitative Foundation, the private foundation of Jaffray Woodriff, a 1991 graduate of U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce. Woodriff is a successful Charlottesville hedge fund manager whose firm was built on the disciplined and creative use of original data science methods. The University will provide $7 million to supplement the endowment over the same period.

“Data science has emerged to play a critically important role in business, government, health care, the humanities and beyond,” Woodriff said. “This kind of work and research requires highly skilled and trained experts who are capable of succeeding across many disciplines. I’m proud to support the University of Virginia’s strategic commitment in data science. I believe it will pay tremendous dividends for the students, the commonwealth and society in general.”

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