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Bates to Use $19 Million Donation to Launch Computer Science Program

Patty Wight
Clayton Spencer

After receiving the largest gift in its history, Bates College in Lewiston will launch a new computer science program.

Seven families are pledging $19 million to the school, including $10 million from one family. Bates officials say the gift will help the college define what a liberal arts education can be.

It’s no secret that when it comes to the current job market, employers are looking for applicants with strong computer skills. But, says Matthew Auer, they also want to see skills that go beyond computers.

Auer is vice president for academic affairs at Bates. He recalls a conversation he had with an entrepreneur who told him that a lot of job seekers come up short.

“We don’t need people who can just write clean code,” he says. “We need people who can solve problems. We need people who can develop apps that will be helpful to society or make people’s lives better.”

Enter a liberal arts education. Auer says Bates’ new computer science program will integrate with the school’s other core offerings in the humanities and social sciences to create well-rounded graduates.

“The idea that some students, if you will, take the deep dive into questions in computer science and computer technology," he says. “But many other students inside of this course of study would develop the computational skills to probe questions in other fields — it could be in dance, it could be in neuroscience, it could be in psychology.”

Bates began planning for its digital and computational studies program a few years ago, says President Clayton Spencer. A 2014 student survey found that nearly 70 percent of students wanted computer courses, and 14 percent said they would choose the program as a major.

“Computer science is one of the fastest growing majors in the country, doubling and tripling at liberal arts colleges as well as research universities,” Spencer says.

She says the $19 million gift from seven families will allow the college to launch a state-of-the-art program with three professor positions. Bates will also use the gift to hire three additional faculty in biological chemistry, neuroscience and economics.

“That’s permanent money that will support the college in perpetuity even as we take the small percentage off each year to support our new professorships,” Spencer says.

It’s a major boost for the college, which used to fundraise about $12 million a year, says Spencer. Since she took over in 2012, Spencer says that amount has nearly doubled.

Within this $19 million gift is the largest donation Bates has received in its history — $10 million from the Bonney family. Michael Bonney is chair of the board of trustees and an alum, as are his wife, their three kids and other extended family members.

“The world has lots of challenges and I’m quite confident that building on our strong history and with the addition of these resources, Bates is incredibly well positioned to produce the folks who will figure out how to deal with some of these problems that humanity faces over the coming years,” Bonney says.

Bates’ computer science program will launch in 2017 and students can choose it as a major in the fall of 2018.