Friday morning dawned snowy and quiet at the University of Virginia, but the Rotunda’s Dome Room was abuzz with activity and excitement.

UVA President Jim Ryan was on hand, as was Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni and many students, faculty members and administrators. (Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, were unable to attend, but took part in the proceedings via video and letter.)

They were all there for a big announcement, one that Ryan called “easily the biggest and most exciting news” of his presidency so far: The University is planning a new School of Data Science, made possible by the largest private gift in UVA’s history.

The new school – UVA’s 12th, and the first established since 2007 – was made possible by a supporting gift of $120 million from the Quantitative Foundation, based in Charlottesville and led by Jaffray Woodriff and his wife, Merrill Woodriff, both UVA graduates.

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President Jim Ryan standing at a podium giving a speech in the Rotunda
UVA President Jim Ryan elaborated on the opportunities and challenges that come with establishing one of the nation’s first schools dedicated to data science. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

It will focus on a topic Ryan and every other speaker called critical to the future of the University, the commonwealth, the country and the world. The Washington Post, in its reporting of UVA’s new school, called data science “one of the hottest subjects in higher education.”

“We are quite literally surrounded by data, and it is changing the world around us,” Ryan said. “It is helping self-driving cars navigate the roads, leading to breakthroughs in treatments of diseases, giving us insight into urgent issues like climate change and enduring ones like poverty.”

The potential in nearly every field, he said, “is nothing short of breathtaking.”

“An exciting vision is emerging, and my hope is that we can build one of the most advanced and comprehensive schools of data science in the world, focused on using data in service of the public good,” Ryan said.

Creating the School of Data Science

Jaffray Woodriff, taking the podium after Ryan, said that building a school around data science will position UVA as a pioneer in the field.

“I believe elevating data science to the level of a school further emboldens this university to continue striving to be a leader in the field, which I believe will play a central role in shaping our future,” said Woodriff, who graduated from the McIntire School of Commerce in 1991 and is the co-founder and CEO of Quantitative Investment Management. “Responsibly applying data science is one of the greatest opportunities of our lifetime.”

Woodriff and Ryan both pointed out that advancement in data science does not come without challenges and ethical questions – questions that UVA faculty and students can help answer.

Jaffray Woodriff shakes another mans hand

Jaffray Woodriff, along with his wife Merrill, leads the Quantitative Foundation, which provided a $120 million gift supporting the new school. He greets acting dean Phil Bourne, left. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Unfortunately, data science can be, and has been, used with ill intention,” Woodriff said. “I foresee the University of Virginia taking a key role in addressing these types of issues and evaluating the value of responsive policy respecting the ethics and regulation of data science.”

The new school is still in the design phase, and the University continues to seek input and necessary approvals from multiple groups, including the Faculty Senate, Board of Visitors and ultimately the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. It will build on work already done by the Data Science Institute, a pan-University institute established in 2013 that grants graduate degrees and conducts research. A $10 million grant from the Quantitative Foundation helped to establish the institute in 2013.

Group Photo
Current faculty, students and staff in UVA’s Data Science Institute, which will be integrated into the new school, were on hand for the announcement. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“Plans for this school are unique and the University has put great thought into how it will be true to UVA’s roots, by focusing on outstanding faculty as well as ensuring that the experience data science students have here will be unlike experiences they could have anywhere else,” Woodriff said, thanking both Ryan and President Emerita Teresa A. Sullivan for their support in envisioning and planning for the new school.

Phil Bourne, who directs the Data Science Institute and will serve as the new school’s acting dean, said the school will focus on interdisciplinary collaboration. Satellites and centers embedded in other schools around UVA will facilitate data science work in a variety of disciplines, including data acquisition, engineering, analytics, data visualization and dissemination, and ethics, policy and law.

The school will also, Bourne said, “weave social responsibility into all we do.”

“A school of data science must help drive this world appropriately to profound change,” he said.

In their remarks, Northam and Riggleman, as well as Sens. Warner and Kaine, said that developing talent in the emerging field is critically important to the future of the commonwealth.

Denver Riggleman speaking at a podium

U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman spoke about his time at UVA, its impact on his life and how he has used data science in his career. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Riggleman, an alumnus who said the event marked an emotional return to UVA for him, applauded “the vision and forward thinking of those that have spoken about data science” and noted that he had seen the field’s potential impact firsthand while serving in the Air Force.

“Can we use data to solve these important problems? Can we use data science to move forward?” Riggleman asked. “I think we can, and I have seen it work.” 

A representative read a statement from Kaine, who said he was proud that Virginia would be home to one of the first schools of data science in the nation.

“Investments in education are vital to prepare students and workers for success in the modern economy,” Kaine said. “Our commonwealth succeeds by developing a skilled workforce, and I applaud your efforts to ensure that Virginia remains a magnet for talented individuals.”

Creating the School of Data Science

Warner seconded his colleague’s congratulations in a video statement recorded from Capitol Hill.

“UVA will once again stake out a leadership position not only for Virginia, but for the country and the world,” Warner said.

Northam concluded the event by noting that the new school will be a valuable asset as Virginia works to develop and attract top technology firms and innovators in a variety of fields. 

“This means the world not only to the University of Virginia, but to the commonwealth,” Northam said. “I am excited about how this dovetails with the focus we have at the state level on training a new generation of Virginians for technology-related jobs.”

Ralph Northam giving a speech at the podium in the Rotunda

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam provided insight on how the new school could impact statewide efforts to create jobs and fuel innovation in the tech sector. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

He particularly noted Amazon’s recently announced expansion in Northern Virginia, which is expected to create a variety of tech jobs, as well as educational opportunities.

“Technology is a huge and growing sector in Virginia and everywhere else,” Northam concluded. “It is critical that we are able to get meaning out of data to help us understand situations and make good choices in policies. UVA’s data science efforts will help us in that effort, and turning your existing programs into a larger, more unified School of Data Science will only expand your ability to help Virginia build the workforce of tomorrow.”