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Harvard computer science faculty to expand

Former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer (left) spoke Wednesday about the potential for a strengthened computer science department, on campus and beyond.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer (left) spoke Wednesday about the potential for a strengthened computer science department, on campus and beyond.

Harvard University will expand its computer science faculty by 50 percent over the next decade, a major campaign designed to position the university as a leader in the field amid surging enrollment in its computer science classes.

The initiative, which aims to spur breakthroughs across a range of disciplines, largely is being financed by Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft chief executive who graduated from Harvard in 1977.

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The department plans to add a dozen faculty members in the coming years, raising its total to 36 and bringing its ranks closer to such top departments as Stanford, which has about 50, and MIT, with 55.

In an interview Wednesday with Globe editors and reporters, Ballmer said the expansion will help Harvard “build the leading department in the world” at a time when computer science increasingly underpins research in a broad range of fields.

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“It’s really the dawn of a new era, and Harvard is going to lead,” he said.

Ballmer said he hoped the infusion of talent would spark collaborative research on campus and serve as a catalyst for new startup companies in the area, along the lines of Silicon Valley.

It will help create a “hub of academia, innovation, and entrepreneurship,” he said, describing the initiative as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

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The computer science department is slated to move to new facilities in Allston when they are completed in several years.

The increase in faculty will help Harvard meet the growing demand for computer science classes, which have become increasingly popular across a broader range of students in recent years.

The number of computer science majors has tripled over the past five years to 275 students,and an introductory undergraduate course drew more than 800 students this semester, making it the most popular class on campus. Women make up about one-third of students in the introductory computer science class and about 30 percent of computer science majors.

“Harvard needs to have a very strong, vibrant department,” said David Parkes, area dean for computer science at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Over the past five years, enrollment in SEAS courses has tripled, while the number of students majoring in engineering and applied sciences has more than doubled. New programs have been added in biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.

Parkes said the field of computer science is “at an inflection point” and said the department will recruit traditional researchers and those who are interested in how computer science “interacts with other disciplines.”

Harvard plans to formally announce the expansion Thursday at a campus event, where Ballmer will join university president Drew Faust. Harvard declined to disclose the amount of his gift.

‘I think there’s dramatic innovation still to come. . . . It’s a chance to build for the future.’

Steve Ballmer, former chief executive of Microsoft 
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Known for his high-energy personality, Ballmer on Wednesday spoke with excitement about the potential for a strengthened computer science department, on campus and beyond. For example, advances in machine learning, the study of how computer systems can improve through experience, will have broad applications.

“I think there’s dramatic innovation still to come,” he said.

Harvard will recruit established researchers and rising stars, with an eye on emerging fields and technologies.

“It’s a chance to build for the future,” he said, quoting hockey star Wayne Gretzky’s famous adage to “skate where the puck is going.”

In a statement, Faust said the university was grateful for Ballmer’s “game-changing support.”

“The growth in computer science at Harvard will enable our faculty to design their own future,” Faust said.

While the hiring process will begin soon, filling the new positions will take time, Parkes said.

“You really want to get the right people in the right fields,” Ballmer said.

Ballmer’s support comes just two months after Harvard’s school of public health received a $350 million donation, the largest in university history. The gift came from the Morningside Foundation, the family charity of Hong Kong billionaire Gerald Chan, to tackle global health threats.

In February, Harvard received a pledge for more than $125 million from hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin to support undergraduate financial aid.

Ballmer’s long tenure at Microsoft gave him a prominence that extends well beyond the world of technology.

He joined Harvard classmate Bill Gates in the early years of Microsoft and led the company as chief executive from 2000 until he stepped down in February. This summer, he became the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, paying $2 billion.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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