Most popular major at Princeton? Would you believe computer science?

Department Chair Rexford said gift from alum, ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt should help famed liberal arts school grow already booming program

By Lauren Minore
Princeton | Jun 3, 2019 at 6:00 am

A gift that will help consolidate and expand the computer science program at Princeton University should not be viewed as a step in a direction the college wants to go.

It’s an acknowledgement of where Princeton already is.

That’s the feeling of Jennifer Rexford, a 1991 graduate, the Gordon S. Wu Professor of Engineering and chair of Princeton’s computer science department.

According to Rexford, computer science is the most popular major at Princeton, with 12 percent of the student body declaring it as their major and another 10 percent choosing it for a minor.

And the statistic, she said, should not be viewed as a move away from the traditional liberal arts study the school is known for, but as an acknowledgement that computer science directly impacts all studies and all facets of life.

An undisclosed donation by 1976 alum and the former CEO of Google and executive chairman of Alphabet, Eric Schmidt, and his wife, Wendy Schmidt, will be used to rebuild and expand Guyot Hall, which will soon be renamed the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Hall.

“The rationale for the building is twofold: One is our increased size, which means that having us all located in one common physical space, is increasingly difficult in our current building,” Rexford told ROI-NJ.

“The second is putting us in a central location on campus where we can really connect with all of the disciplines that are increasingly touched by computer science.”

The building ultimately will centralize the department by consolidating the nine buildings of Princeton’s computer science department into one purpose-built space.

Schmidt, in a statement, said he is glad to be a part of something he feels will have huge impact.

“Data science has the potential to transform every discipline and find solutions to profound societal problems,” he said.

“Wendy and I are excited to think about what will be possible when Princeton is able to gather students and faculty in one place, right at the center of campus, to discover now-unimaginable solutions for the future century.”

Rexford said the increase in interest has come organically — and that it stretches across both genders.

The department also has about 36% undergraduate majors who are women, which is more than double the national average for any program of its kind, she said.

“Part of the popularity of the major is a national trend, but I think there is also a lot being done to make sure that students who don’t know they want to do it before they come (to college) have a path to doing it,” she said.

Rexford said that data science, or, in her words, turning raw data into knowledge, has its roots in computer science and is becoming a cornerstone of every human endeavor in every field.

Three areas of computer science the department cares deeply about, in particular, are the theoretical foundations, the application of methods to accelerate discovery and the societal implications of the results.

“They really cut across a whole bunch of different disciplines on campus to really make Princeton, I think, a very interesting place to be pondering with a future of a data-driven world,” she said.

The new building will be located at the intersection of the buildings that house humanities, social sciences, science and engineering on campus. Rexford said the department will now be in close proximity to all of them.

The project is planned for completion in 2026. It is unclear as of yet if the gift will also allow for the addition of new technology and materials for students to use inside classrooms.

President Christopher L. Eisgruber said the school is thrilled to continue its relationship with Schmidt.

“Eric Schmidt’s brilliant career as a computer scientist makes the Schmidt name especially fitting for the new home of Princeton’s world-class Department of Computer Science,” he said.

“We are deeply grateful to Eric Schmidt ’76, his wife, Wendy Schmidt, and Schmidt Futures for their spectacular vision and generosity.”

Earlier this year, Princeton announced the gift establishing the Schmidt DataX Fund, which will advance the breadth and depth of data science impact on campus, accelerate discovery in three large, interdisciplinary research efforts and create opportunities to educate, train, convene and support a broad data science community at Princeton.

In 2009, the Schmidts established the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund, an endowment that supports the invention, development and utilization of cutting-edge technology that has the capacity to transform research in the natural sciences and engineering at Princeton.

“Their extraordinary commitments to this new facility, to the Schmidt DataX Fund and to the Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund have powerfully enhanced Princeton’s capacity for teaching, innovation and collaboration that open new frontiers of learning and improve the world,” Eisgruber said.

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