AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts on Thursday broke ground on a $125 million facility for its computer science program that officials say will position the university to be a leader in education and research at the digital frontier .
“This is an important day in the continued evolution of the Commonwealth,” said UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.
The prospect of thunderstorms forced things inside, making the groundbreaking more symbolic than actual.
Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. gov. Karyn Polito and UMass President Martin Meehan joined Subbaswamy, campus leaders and local lawmakers in the ceremony.
The construction of the new facility, a 90,000-square-foot building, was prompted by the growth of the computer and information science program at UMass in recent years.
The state contributed $75 million toward construction costs.
The new building, to be constructed on a vacant lot on Governor’s Drive east of the existing building, is expected to be ready for occupancy by 2025.
In addition to the government contribution, the project was supported by an $18 million donation from UMass Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Manning and his wife, Donna Manning.
The $18 million was part of a $50 million donation the Mannings made to the UMass system last year, the largest in UMass history.
The college was renamed the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences.
Through the Mannings’ generosity, Subbaswamy said, “We will continue to position Manning College as an evolutionary force in the industry by attracting top faculty by increasing access to the program.”
“Today we are starting the next chapter for New England’s premier informatics program,” said UMass Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Trish Serio.
The college already has 1,700 students, 400 master’s students and 280 doctoral students. As enrollments have increased over the past five years, the college has hired 40 new faculty in that time, for a total of 74.
Serio said the college has worked closely with industry since its inception and is a leader in artificial intelligence, search engines and networks. In fiscal year 2021, the college raised $21 million in research grants from government and industry sources.
But while UMass officials talked about the campus being ready to become a part of the digital frontier, Baker and Manning both cautioned that the college must teach more than just technology
“Everything is going digital. Part of me sees this as incredibly exciting, and part of me sees it as absolutely terrifying,” Baker said.
He said it was absolutely critical that colleges were able to “teach, do research and understand the implications of both.”
Baker cited the example of social media, which over the past decade has evolved from a promise of a global medium for sharing information to an instant vehicle for sharing misinformation, insults, and lies.
That means not only teaching technology, but ethics, he said.
He noted that the college’s motto is “Computing for the Common Good” and that part of that is teaching right and wrong. “We’re going to do a great job here, but we have to prepare people to look carefully at what we mean when we say ‘the common good,'” Baker said.
Manning did not attend the ceremony in person, but appeared from afar.
MFS Financial Services CEO Manning said he knows from experience that computer advancements will continue to make leaps and bounds. And like Baker, he said, it scares him.
He said he’s harnessed the power of computers to succeed in business, “but I’ve also seen the destruction they can wreak.”
Technology without an ethical basis to govern it is a problem, Manning said. “And I’m really worried about that.”
Quantum computers have the power to reshape society in ways humans cannot imagine, and it’s important schools emphasize ethics, he said.
“The computing power just around the corner in the next decade is going to be amazing,” he said
Without educating today’s students about the potential dangers, he said, “We’re in big trouble.”
Baker, who is stepping down in January after failing to seek re-election, has been hailed by Subbaswamy as a true friend of UMass for the past eight years. He said Baker was no small part of the campus’s achievements during this time.
When it was Baker’s turn, the governor returned the compliment.
“Right back to you,” he said to Subbaswamy. “They are the gold standard by which all chancellors are measured.”
Subbaswamy, who was appointed ten years ago, announced that he will retire in June.
Regarding the UMass system as a whole, Baker said, “My dad always said, there are people who want a job and there are people who want to do the job, and there’s a big difference.” UMass system, from Meehan and Subbaswamy down, he said, “There’s a long line of people who are doers.”