Higher Ed Makes Big Moves with Big Data

MIT and UC Berkeley give analytics its own home on campus. 

Two U.S. universities recently made significant additions to their departmental structures, in bids to make data analytics education a major part of their future plans. In both cases, university leaders have signaled a belief that data analytics warrants its own campus division.

In October, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge announced its US$1 billion commitment to explore opportunities presented by computing and artificial intelligence (AI). A major part of this commitment will be the formation of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. The new college will be funded by a $350 million gift from Schwarzman, the chairman and CEO of global asset manager Blackstone. The college is scheduled to open September 2019, and its new building will be completed in 2022.

The college will be an interdisciplinary hub for collaborative work in computer science, AI, data science, and related fields across the university. To support its expanded emphasis on computing, MIT has created 50 new faculty positions, 25 within the college and 25 in joint positions in other university departments. Once these positions are filled, MIT will have nearly doubled the number of faculty with expertise in computing and AI.

In November, the leadership of the University of California, Berkeley, announced its own plans to open a new multidisciplinary division of data science and information. The division will coordinate programs and research related to data science across the College of Engineering, the College of Letters and Science, and the School of Information.

The division’s creation is a response not only to the growing influence that data has on all aspects of human life, but also to the demand for data analytics training among students from all disciplines and backgrounds. For instance, enrollment has skyrocketed in Berkeley’s undergraduate course called Data 8: Foundations of Data Science, from 100 students in the fall of 2015, when it was first offered, to 1,300 students in the fall of 2018. Last year, these students represented 68 different majors; half were women and 11 percent were from underrepresented minority groups. Most had little or no coding experience.

For MIT, too, creating a standalone interdisciplinary college for computing is one way to ensure that technical skills are taught in all disciplines, says L. Rafael Raif, MIT’s president. “Computing is no longer the domain of the experts alone. It’s everywhere, and it needs to be understood and mastered by almost everyone,” he says. “We must make sure that the leaders we graduate offer the world not only technological wizardry but also human wisdom—the cultural, ethical, and historical consciousness to use technology for the common good.”