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Gift from Ballmer Will Expand Computer Science Faculty at Harvard (bits.blogs.nytimes.com)
44 points by dnetesn on Nov 13, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments

Good for Harvard, but unfortunately the same money could go a lot farther and help a lot more students at lower tier universities. University of Southern Maine recently cut its CS faculty in half, from six to three right in the middle of the academic year in a desperate bid to save money. Public universities across the country are suffering from 15 years of near-annual cuts to state subsidies.

Harvard would survive and even thrive without donations like Ballmer's, but I'm not sure about the tier of higher education that serves the vast majority of college students.

Then raise some money for Maine and quit telling other people what to do with their money. If the United States requires a few benevolent rich people to give money to keep the public system working then something is seriously wrong. Everyone here pays fewer taxes than their European counterparts, for example. Raise taxes in Maine.

Harvard (and other private colleges) enjoy a tax exempt status where it comes to endowment growth, and private colleges are recipients of massive amounts of government research funds. Harvard enrolls a tiny undergraduate class, with an even tinier percentage of low income students (UC Berkeley enrolls more low income students than the entire ivy league combined). Interestingly, numbers of grad students are roughly the same at the two institutions.

I'm pleased that Ballmer is giving money to support more research, but I don't have a problem with asking what society is getting in return for that massive tax break and colossal infusion of public funding.

The answer, to me, is: quite a lot. Harvard's contributions to research are remarkable, and the world is better for it. But I think it's reasonable to question such a favored tax status and high level of public funding for a university that keeps its undergraduate enrollment so low (especially for low income students).

Can you provide me links with some facts? Is Harvard that much different than Princeton, Stanford, Columbia or Yale? Why are you comparing the big state school model with the Ivy model? Probably every big state school enrolls more low-income students than any Ivy league school. And shouldn't government research money go to the schools with the best research? I checked and Harvard isn't in the top 10: http://247wallst.com/special-report/2013/04/25/universities-...

A few Ivy Schools for comparison.






I guess the question is whether you want to help the field more or help students more. It seems to be more cost efficient to put money to a top tier institution that attracts top faculty if you want to advance the field more - this is just a consequence of the way academia works. Credentials seem to matter immensely to many academics, and as a hypothetical situation: choosing Harvard working on things they care less about seems to be much more orthodox an attitude than choosing a provincial university working on things they care about.

USM probably won't attract top faculty at the same rate as Harvard and thus won't advance the field as much, at least until it gains a reputation in the research world. Of course without funding that's even less possible, which is a crappy vicious cycle, so there's that.

He also donated the the University of Oregon for obesity research and general scholarships. Considering that's the top killer in most industrialized countries (obesity, not scholarships), it's tough to find fault there. I don't think he's putting all his eggs in one basket.

Once again, the top comment on a HN post is critical. No matter what it is; even donating huge sums of money to universities.

I get your frustration with the critical post going to the top. And I agree with you that a huge sum donated to a top university for research is a good thing.

I am also more sympathetic to the people who are critical. We are talking about $50 million more for a university that has a massive tax exempt endowment, that enrolls relatively few undergraduates, and has come under fire recently (along with all elite colleges) for having a relatively low percentage of low income students.

I think it's ok to point this out, though I would also be careful to emphasize that the donation is a good thing (and that research budgets can be different from general support for undergraduates). Also, my understanding is that Microsoft has been very generous with UW.

Then those universities should try to produce prosperous alumni who will donate to them. Harvard is getting this because Ballmer recognizes their contributions to his success. Rewarding poor performers only incentivizes mediocrity.

The "Ballmer" Chair position will be thrown at some of the great up-and-coming researchers at Harvard.

I half expect the next hack (prank) that MIT will pull on Harvard would involve the mysterious appearance of a "Ballmer Memorial Launchable Chair" in Harvard's CS building.

Ballmer has an AmA on Reddit right at 11:15pst (http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2m7cmt/were_steve_ball...) in case any of you are interested to just ask him. Or discuss.

FYI, Harvard currently has a $30B endowment.

So Gates retires, spends his fortune trying to reduce global poverty and cure malaria. Ballmer retires, spends his fortune on a basketball team and donates to what is already the richest school in the country.

Perhaps you're not aware that the CS faculty at Harvard is currently housed in a building funded by Bill Gates as part of a previous donation (with Ballmer).

I think it's possible to donate to a wide variety of causes - a similar argument cropped up on some of the ESA discussions here yesterday, with some people asking why we should bother spending money in space when there's a lot of pressing problems on earth. Investing in education could result in discoveries being made that could benefit millions of people. We are probably in agreement about buying a basketball team being a waste of money though!

Also, don't forget the Gates CS building @ Stanford.

Aparently there are seven computer science department buildings named after Gates: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Gates_Building

UT Austin also has a Gates CS Building/Complex. https://www.cs.utexas.edu/about-us/new-building

And the Bill and Melinda Gates building @ UT Austin.

I'm guessing there are even more?

> We are probably in agreement about buying a basketball team being a waste of money though!

A basketball team is an asset. It's not like he spent the money on blow. It's an investment, just like anything else (although it happens to be one he's passionate about).

Pretty much. They're both trying to create a legacy, just in their own respective ways.

It should be noted that Ballmer did attend Harvard so it isn't just some random donation out of the blue.

Indeed, unlike billg, Ballmer actually graduated!

I've learned over the years that, when a bio says "So-and-so attended Harvard", it means So-and-so went there but didn't finish. Not that I object! Harvard dropouts like Gates, Zuck, and Matt Damon often do exceptionally well—they typically leave because they have an opportunity that's even better than attending Harvard.

So my disclaimer is that if I ever retired with a net worth in that neighborhood, I would also put the bulk of it to work combating poverty.

That said, it's his money. He can spend as he sees fit and unless he sees clubbing baby seals or something equally morally reprehensible as his aim, who are we to take aim?

Clubbing baby seals and owning a basketball team are not in any common neighborhood of "morally reprehensible."

I am ready and willing to "take aim" and go even farther to stop someone, if that someone is behaving sufficiently immorally. My threshold for acceptable and unacceptable generally falls on the issue of whether an individual is harming another living thing. Killing to eat is acceptable. Clubbing baby seals because you're a sadistic billionaire is not acceptable.

Why not try to combat poverty now? The hypothetical "if I were rich..." adds zero value to the world, and it's so easy to say.

And I do. I donate regularly to several charities that are focused on poverty (both at a local and global level) and volunteer time at some of those. What my comment was meant to communicate is that if I had a substantially higher income/net worth, I'd be able to put a much higher portion of it to work doing that than I can right now, where more of my income has to go to a mortgage, car payments, and diapers.

In general I agree with you but with one caveat. Right now the very rich pay the lowest percent of their wealth in taxes in many decades. Taxation is the means by which society is able to make its desires known. I would agree wholeheartedly if the taxation was significantly greater than what it currently is int he U.S. (for the wealthy).

Do you have a source? The data that I've seen shows that the very rich pay about the same effective rate as back in the '50s. The rates were higher in the '50s, but the exemptions were much more liberal.

Here is a source that gives tax revenue as a percent of GDP. This includes all forms of tax. Given that the very wealthy increase their wealth primarily through capital gains and not through income and the capital gains tax is quite low it appears reasonable to conclude that the very wealthy are not overtaxed. This isn't exactly how I phrased my statement so I should revise it. I'll revise thusly, taxes in the United States are not high in comparison to historical standards and are certainly not high in comparison to wealthy countries.


I was curious so I looked it up. According to this article the top 10% pay 68% of all taxes.


Also, the Heritage Foundation is not exactly an unbiased source on this issue.

Here's another take on U.S. taxation: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/tax-reform/news/2011...

They simply choose to emphasize different numbers. The number is correct, right? That link that you posted says that all Americans pay low taxes. My question is shouldn't we all be paying a little more?

That’s the wrong statistic. The question is whether, say, Bill Gates pays a greater or lesser percentage of his income in tax than someone earning 50K.

Most of his income is probably from capital gains, which is only taxed at 15%. I think it's valid to point out very few individuals are paying a lot of the federal taxes.

Sure, it's valid to point it out, but it doesn't suggest any unfairness. You have to look at the percentage that each individual is contributing, and the super-rich do very well by that metric.

It's 23.8% now.

Another option if you have a strong political ideology is to start buying a few election like the Koch brothers have. It's amazing how cheap the world's superpower is. At this point the only hope we have is for billionaires with competing ideologies to battle it out in the political arena.

Being the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is a full time job. B&M has just as much need for organization and automation of bookkeeping as a medium sized company.

It's like those movies/narratives with the well-off/talented protagonist who decides to dedicate their time to the local basketball team and helping kids from the 'hood get an education. Except the basketball team is in the NBA and the kids from the 'hood are Ivy League students.

But I can't judge him. He isn't trying to be like Bill Gates and that's fine.

Is it weird that the size of the faculty (inluding proportion among departments) is determined by the whims of wealthy alumni?

I don't know what to say besides kudos. Harvard will need to build a new building for CS now.

They already are, across the river in Allston - much to the dismay of some the faculty, as the CS department is currently based just north of Harvard Yard. The entire school of engineering will be moving in the next few years.

Oddly enough, the current building the Harvard CS department is based in (Maxwell Dworkin) was itself funded by Ballmer as part of a previous gift with Bill Gates (Maxwell and Dworkin being their mothers' maiden names).

I think this is good. It wasn't all that long ago that a B.S. in C.S. from Harvard was an immediate red flag...a person who went to the school purely for the impressive name, but Harvard's C.S. program was not terribly well known.

It's definitely in an upward swing, likely because "these fancy computer things" are the key to making serious money and influence these days and are only going to be more so, it's nice to see some good work coming out of their program and better funding of the program is going to be very helpful towards equalizing the prestige of Harvard C.S. with Harvard Law, etc.

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