Sunday, May 17, 2009

Question of the Day

If you had $100 million, how would you use it to improve a university? I'd like a solution with maximal impact.


  1. Eliminate the tech transfer office and fund genuine research and education. Since the Bayh-Dole Act universities in the U.S. think that they ought to be and can be venture capitalists, but they absolutely cannot, neither in principle nor in practice. The cancerous influence of this thinking is pervasive and destructive; the sooner we stop this nonsense, the better.

  2. There's no need for $100 million to do that :)

    So, you say that e.g., Stanford has not benefited from Google, Yahoo, HP, etc.? That seems hardly the case.

  3. Relieve the most talented researchers from whoring after grants. Encourage them to concentrate on doing the work they love and forget about money for a while.

  4. That's not a bad idea, but I'm not sure $100 million would carry you for that long. This amount of money would for example entirely support 100-200 professors for a year. For most universities, that's about 20% of the faculty.

  5. Much as I'd like to suggest that donors create endowed chairs for faculty, I think in our current situation an endowed fund for TAships would go a lot farther, both in making it easier to bring in more graduate students and in improving (or preventing more degradation of) the undergraduate experience.

    BTW, your OpenID support for LiveJournal seems to be broken.

  6. I'm surprised nobody has suggested the idea of blowing all the money in buying N SUPER famous/good faculty members from other universities for $100/N million each.

  7. Not sure how big of an impact it would be, but how about using some of it for bigger grants for undergrad. research? When summer time comes around, interning for some big company can seem more practical than doing research when the payoff (money) will be better. A bigger grant would attract more students and give them earlier research experience. This could then attract or deter them from grad. school; both may be good outcomes depending on how you see it.

  8. Invest it in hedge funds. Just imagine how much money it could be twenty or even fifty years from now!

  9. I would build a bad ass liquor store and the greatest strip club in the world right next to campus, if there is anything left I would invest in a water park nearby and an on-campus body painting shop.

    If there is still money left I would invest on lobbying to eliminate all of the stupid PhD exams.

    -Mark, the prelim hater

  10. I don't claim to know much about these things, but here are my random suggestions:

    If we naively assume that the goal of the university is to make an impact on the world, then I think the best investment is in outreach programs, such as high school summer camps, mentoring, etc.

    If the goal of the university is to be famous for its research, then hire a bunch of research faculty. After a few years, they'll support themselves on soft money anyway, which is net income for the university.

  11. Invest it in hedge funds. Just imagine how much money it could be twenty or even fifty years from now!

    Hmm, not sure if this is the best of ideas right now. But nevertheless, if your goal is maximizing impact, it's not clear that saving the money for 50 years makes sense.

  12. Seems to depend what university you're talking about. At a top-5 school, it's hard to see how hiring even 200 more superstars will make impact anything more than the university's bragging rights. Whereas at a struggling school, hiring 5 superstars could make a dramatic difference.

    > Relieve the most talented researchers from
    > whoring after grants.

    These already exist; they're called chaired positions.

  13. Seems to depend what university you're talking about. At a top-5 school, it's hard to see how hiring even 200 more superstars will make impact anything more than the university's bragging rights. Whereas at a struggling school, hiring 5 superstars could make a dramatic difference.

    That's a good point. It does depend on which university you're talking about. However, 200 hotshots would be appreciated anywhere.

    These already exist; they're called chaired positions.

    That's not quite true. Chaired positions do relieve you of some grant writing, but only minimally. In most universities a "chair" is approximately $3M that goes into the endowment, of which 5% is drawn towards paying part of the professor's salary and helping with research funds. Assuming that about $70k make their way towards research funds, that's only a relatively small drop in the bucket.

  14. Give it all to you. Clearly, all other professors and students would complain about a terrible way to spend $100 million and maybe there might be a huge riot or something (= maximal impact)

  15. in the current environment, Id use it to hire a few more faculty (say 25 or so) that are promising but cant find a position due to all the hiring freezes. 100million could fund them for a couple of years until hopefully the school could recover enough to support them normally, or fire them if they cannot

  16. Use it (as part of an endowment to a special fund) to lower tuition and/or increase number of available scholarships/fellowships -> decrease the barrier to entering tertiary education and graduate programs that may be preventing us from acquiring some of our most talented students.

  17. 1) Do research on problems that are actually important. Why fund some areas in CS which are already dead for many years or the industry is already far ahead than academia.
    2) Stop differentiating between research and not research.

  18. Maximal impact could be several things; e.g. attract more money for research, thus invest the first 100m in an area of big public exposure,where results will definitely attract more. On the other hand one could use the money to hire external consultants to assess the university efficiency on academics and research, operations, etc. (though i have my reservations for the capabilities of consultants assessing universities). So how would you define maximal impact?

  19. Here's another proposal: Spend it all hiring a big PR/ad agency. Buy superbowl ads for the next 5 years in a row, etc.

  20. Depend of what you start with (the level of the university before using the grant), and what kind of impact you want (increased popularity, increased enrollment, increased scientific output?) and whether you aim for the short or long term.

    I would use it to fund my favorite project: create a center similar to the Entertainment Technology Center (, only for pedagogy, with project oriented courses for undergraduate students, where they have to collaborate in order to develop pedagogical material of their choice (paintings, comic books for the art students, video animations, video games for the CS students, etcetera) for courses they took in the previous year, and to submit each project to a competition where the students having to learn the related material vote the material they prefer.

    The students designing the pedagogical material will 1) relearn material they saw before, understanding it enough to explain it;
    2) practice media production (painting/drawing/animating for art students, programming/animating for CS students, telling History through a story for History students, describing/summarizing the Geography of a full country or continent through a virtual world for Geography students);
    3) produce usefull content (as opposed to the Reversi game I was asked to program in undergrad, which was very frustrating as there were already many instances available)

    The students judging the pedagogical material will
    1) see the material they have to learn in a different light. Same content, different support, helps to motivate learners.
    2) will have to ponder the differences between projects and explain why they prefer one to the other, making them think about what is taught.
    3) will get new material each year.

    Beside the impact obtained by forming better students (more motivated to learn, and more creative), a selected of the best material, put online, will contribute to a growing database of pedagogical material which can be used all through the world, maximizing the impact of the school you created in the long term.

    While you are at it, hire me to help fund this new school, that would be the right time in my carreer, and CMU would be the right place to do it.

  21. Lobby congress to reduce the legal drinking age to 18, taking underage drinking on college campuses out from the dark, probably making it more reasonable, and causing students to have more of a life of moderation.

  22. $100M is the size of the initial endowment for TTI-Chicago. However, I'm not convinced that founding a new department is the most efficient use of the money. I can think of 3 approaches which might be more effective or inspiring:

    1) X-prize/Darpa Grand Challenge/Netflix style contests. Done right, these seem to inspire substantial amounts of research and effort. However, doing this right is tricky---you need something truly inspiring. Quality control and some amount of publicity is key. Given this, there is a fair claim that this approach inspires far more research than the NSF process, and it's far more meritocratic.

    2) Telelearning. This is an old bandwagon that many people have jumped onto, but I believe it's coming of age very shortly, between, the MIT open course system, and some threshold of bandwidth being achieved. What patterns of interaction work for teaching people remotely? How can you systematically and effectively scale up the ability to teach? An investment of this scale guarantees that the university doing it won't be sidelined in 10-30 years by a shake-out similar to what we see with newspapers now. Why would we need thousands of universities all over the world when anyone can learn from the best?

    3) Open source project funding. There are certain projects which fail to be (a) bite size enough for a single professor to address or (b) profitable enough for a company. Substantial parts of the internet are built on projects fitting (a) and (b), and I believe there is much more to do as we shift from a-computer-is-what-you-carry to the network-is-a-computer paradigm. Approach (3) might be particularly effective in combination with (1) and (2) above.

  23. This is the kind of question where you will get many ideas from people reflecting their different viewpoints and priorities, but you won't be able to differentiate between them until you step back and think about what you are trying to achieve. What do you mean by improve a university? What is wrong and what needs to be improved? What would be success?

  24. Just to be precise, success = US News rankings. Not that I necessarily believe this is the best measure, but it's at least *a* measure.

  25. Spend it on creating a program (or just hiring a few researchers) on understanding the best way to disseminate research on computer systems. Clearly, papers aren't cutting it. So, look into ways to make comparable knowledge dissemination mediums of tomorrow (I mean today).

  26. How much is US news and world report worth? Given the current economy, and the state of the magazine, you may well be able to buy it for O(100 million)!

  27. Well, right after a post on corrupt governments...what you need to do is bribe the US News committee or whoever decides the rankings. That seems like the simplest method of acheiving the desired success, although there is the risk of imprisonment etc.

  28. 1. Pick a short list of nice open problems/new areas of research (e.g., speech recognition or bioinformatics would work; solving SAT in poly time would not)

    2. Hire 1-3 star faculty to take a stab at each problem (here is where you use the $100M). Give them money to lure PhD's and postdocs from their former universities

    3. Wait for a PhD cycle

    4. a)Your place should be recognized as one of the top research centers in the areas of your choice. b)It should be easier to get good faculty and grad students.

    5. ...Profit!

    6. Change the list and repeat

    P.S.: Point 4b) usually works better if your university is not located in the middle of nowhere (e.g., West Lafayette, IN).

  29. build a football stadium and hire a coach

  30. replace floor with disco panels

  31. Hi,

    Make a movie related to research or researchers...

    For many kind of sports there are some kind of movies that motivated/inspired thousands of people and in addition made legends.

    For example, in the sport of bodybuilding they made a movie called Pumping Iron which takes place in a gym called Golds Gym with Arnold Schwazenegger.
    After this movie the gym became known as the meca of bodybuilding and arnold as the icone of the sport.

    Maybe you can do the same with a university. The university will be known as the meca of research. This will have many kinds of good last impact: funding, bright students, attract bright faculty ....

    Moreover, by doing this you may also be able to motivate children to study and adults to have more empathy to research ....


  32. Get rid of all the text books and make people go directly to the source.

    If you are studying law, you go right to the code, if you are studying marketing, you go right into making campaigns for real busineses and learning hands on.

  33. I'm surprised that no one has really mentioned the way the rankings (our measure of success, wrong or right) are obtained. We have this article to help:

    So to get the best rankings within a short period of time (5 years), we should (with my suggested allocation):

    0) This comes first: BUY the best students with scholarships greater than tuition. (Sounds kind of awful...) Total: $20M (maybe 20 students per year)

    1) Increase peer assessment (25%) - Increase faculty awareness through increased research ($30M), and financial incentives to attract the *best* ($20M) Total: $50M

    2) Increase retention (20%) - Increase student happiness and services provided by the school: make good contests ($2M), free coffee and snacks, etc. (Honestly, it would help. $1M), better tutoring and help programs ($2M). In general, throw money anywhere that will make students happy and motivated to perform. Total: $5M

    3) Faculty resources (20%) - Make lots of small classes ($10M) and increase faculty pay ($10M). This combined with the hiring of a few more profs (above) helps massively in this category. Total: $20M.

    4) Student selectivity (15%) - Buying the best students (as above). Also, some of the other improvements will help attract better students.

    5) Financial resources (10%) - Well, this spending...

    6) Graduation rate performance (5%) - Getting the best students, improving the graduation rate (above)

    7) Alumni giving rate (5%) - Pamphlets and others - $1M at most... not much to do here

    Throw in marketing and make a cool logo that won't get us sued by Central Mich. Univ.: $4M

    Total: $100M, 5 years

    Honestly, $100M doesn't go very far...


    Cool theoretical alternative: split the school into a cooperating college and university, with the highest-ranked and lowest ranked majors. University-wide stats are improved as rankings must be separate -> profit.

  34. "2. Hire 1-3 star faculty to take a stab at each problem (here is where you use the $100M)."

    Holy cow. I like the idea of one faculty member getting $100 million. I would build myself the biggest office on earth.

  35. Having just come back from a visit to Peking Uni, I'm starting to think that it's of real value to have all your graduate students living on campus. We effectively had this in Cambridge also. You create a community of scholars much more effectively than if your students all live a one-hour commute away. I'd consider spending $100M to have all students at Sydney live on-site.

  36. I'd implement Hesse's glasperlenpsiel ... something on the scale of WikiPedia, with the impact of Library of Alexandria.


  37. Hows about investing the money in liquid impression memory over a hard surface.

  38. Luis, Thanks for asking this question. It was fun to think about it. I would use the money to create a complete electronic health record for every student, faculty member and staff member at the university, year in and year out. The records would be stored as granular, immutable objects held centrally under the auspices of the university but nonetheless ever under the direct, granular control of each individual via a web social networking interface. This social networking system would provide accounts for every hospital or physician subsequently used or visited by the university students or alums throughout their lives. If the hospitals or physicians want access to a student's medical records, they would have to first open an account in the university's medical social network. Using this interface, individuals would be empowered to further register, control and follow the sharing of immutably authored data objects containing their records deep into their medical networks. For individuals, the maximal impact would come from the empowerment of 'data ownership' by individuals throughout their lives. For universities, the maximal impact would come from providing a significant life-time value for attracting top quality students, faculty and staff. For the nation, the ripple of effect of networking students, alums, staff and faculty into the nation's medical grid would bring about significant social and political change by manifesting from "grass roots" what is possible.

  39. Ok ... hows about a new way to type that could lead to many new keyboards . A dance, a walking pattern, or even different movements (like a kata ) could all be utilized for these new products . I think 100 mill can benefit from these ideas .

  40. Steve thats a lot of money and information to invest in old technological. no ?

  41. I am late for this discussion...but being a chemist by profession...I would build a brand new chemistry building and spruce it up with all the latest instruments and tech personnel and go after the big profs in my field and give them a blank check to move to the university.
    An offer no one can refuse.
    Dr BR

  42. Five ideas...

    1. Create a professional looking YouTube video higlighting the program offerings.

    2. Invent a "crisis in computing" and talk about it on another professional YouTube video.

    3. Create inspiring YouTube videos of previous computer programmers, ending with a pitch for your college.

    4. Create a difficult programming challenge for the students and award them a $500,000 prize.

    5. Use the rest of the money to fund independent student projects.


    $100 Million on red :-)

  43. Luis,

    You posed a very interesting question. As I read earlier through the comments, it does depend on which University you are talking about, but if you want to make the most impact, then investing the $100 million in what the University is already well known for makes sense. Make use of the University's comparative advantage over other universities and improve upon it. Be the best in what your well known for.

    For example, in the case of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), investing in ways to promote innovation is an ideal fit.

    I would invest the money to hire the top talent of different disciplines to work with the innovative technology at CMU to find practical and beneficial ways of using state of the art technology and innovation, award scholarships to the brightest students around the world, and develop a community business incubator with collaborative centers around the world with other global communities.

    I really think this would have a huge impact.

    On a side note, is reCAPTCHA already used in supportive ways to help other languages? can reCAPTCHA be modified for blind and visually impaired users by using music, vibrations...etc?

  44. Work with Google and Wikipedia to create a History Globe website - A spinning globe that you can zoom in and out of to view geographical/historical data, complete with a slider in order to change the date through out time.

    Imagine being able to move through time and see the expansion of the Roman Empire, watch Pangea break apart and India slam into the Asian continent - the possibilities are endless and it might very well change the way historians view history.

    Put the name of the school all over the website and name recognition does the rest.

  45. I am good friends with a carnegie mellon graduate and financial engineer and when she is working i find her lack of imagination very perplexing ..... i would somehow initiate an imaginative exercise and implement it into useful routines for students to begin thinking outside the equations and more abstract ideas may begin to surface to help create a more fascinating work envirom=nment thus stimulating our economic growth ..... some kind of art program for nerds lol

    Marcus Sterling Alleyne
    fine artist

  46. invite super creative individuals and pay them for their ideas. here is the clicker: invite people who did not finish college between the ages of 25-33years old now.

  47. For each institution there is a mission statement of sorts for which a multiple choice or oral exam can be given. For those prospective students who excel, give them full-rides. Make it internet based and easily accessible, but make the exam test potential rather than experience or current skill level.

    I work daily with low-income, low-education, "low-potential" clients, and some of them would make excellent students at an institution such as yours if given the chance.

    I think of one individual who, with no computer experience whatsoever, grasped the intricacies of ANSI SQL within a day, and has not lost them, and can, when not worried about money (which is not often), outcode me, and even correct my code which is based on 20+ years experience.

    After watching you on Nova, I know that if you had this student in your class, you would feel blessed, but she is trapped in a cycle of poverty.

    Use the money to partner with non-profits throughout the nation to identify these geniuses and grant them the education which they will use, with eagerness, to help us all.

  48. dear van,
    to really get a best idea as to how to utilize 100 million.
    first thing u should keep some prize/incentive...for a person to matter how small..u should declare some incentive first...and see how the ideas pour...

    secondly...100 million is good chunk of $...if you think like a business man..then u would use 100 million in self sustaining project...the project which supports where not only objective is solved...but it is taking care of itself..
    you have to just think like big coroporation or big company...who not only have the reasearch department...but they are self dependent...
    and these companies go for 100's of years.creating/inventing/discovering products.
    thirdly your project should have a very good public many many well wishers just contribute/donate for the project.
    i think this is the way to use 100 million

  49. Use the funds to replace the grants from the Department of Defense to increase the ratio of intellectual capital being used for constructive purposes as opposed to destructive ones. Although subsidizing destructive technology can (and often does) have secondary constructive applications, directly subsidizing constructive pursuits would have primary and secondary applications. Just imagine if just a small portion of the capital (intellectual and financial) dedicated to military ends were directed toward satisfying human wants (and by extension needs) as opposed to better ways of wrecking stuff (and people). Rather than granting money to further destructive ends, grant money to further creative ends. This would be maximal in impact because you would be creating an inverse relationship between creative and destructive pursuits. Every dollar replacing a Department of Defense dollar is one less for destruction and one more for creation, basically meaning you double the social utility of your investment even before the secondary benefits of any ensuing intellectual (and capitol) investment.

  50. While I truly agree with you about "defense" money, $100 million is not nearly enough to substitute such grants.

  51. Give out $100,000,000 in small pieces $1,000-$10,000 and ask "crowds" to invest these funds in micro-projects that will return these funds plus additional revenues to the university (for scholarships, etc). Ask area school kids to request $50-$100 grants to conduct bake sales, fundraisers, entrepreneurial activities. A Cleveland preacher gave $100 grants to congregants and they returned three times the original sums using the funds for bake sales, direct mail campaign to friends and family. May not dramatically change the university, but step one will doulbe the monies available.

  52. I am a enterpenurial computer scientist, but I have been teaching myself Neuroscience and related medical knowledge for a few years now..

    What I've found is that you can have a book written by a "super star" in the field which almost completely useless because the mind brilliant in the physiology of excitable cells does not necessarly make someone even an adequate teacher.

    That is not to say that they couldn't be, but there is a good deal of training available that can make "star" profs into good profs... I'm not saying that this is always required, I have been taught by and read some great ones.. however, I would bet, that on average, there is alot of work to be done.

    So... as to the $100 million... In my estimation, the primary role of any educational institution is the educate. So, I would use the $100 million to build a program to help profs become better teachers, not just astounding researchers.

    I wonder how often it happens where a person feels that they can't "handle" something when in fact the information was simply poorly presented.

  53. I think I have the best answer to this question, though many will argue against it, since it would create a rival to the entire higher education model. The best use of this money would be to establish a peer reviewed, merit based, online university which would confer any degree based purely on the academic value of the submission by the student. As a completely open university it would be free of subjective grading through the exhaustive peer review of submissions by the entire academic community. Though free of charge it would be very difficult, since academic submissions would have to be approved by a large number of subscribed academics. Powerful technology would have to ensure the person submitting the work was the actual person. Think of it as Wikipedia providing college credit for high caliber/quality entries.

  54. Make a lot of those Hollywood style lectures that you posted about and lobby to grant PhDs to those who can quote lines from the lectures from memory!

  55. Maybe pick a university in the third world to target? The money would go a heck of a long way. Use it to improve e.g. water supplies and sanitation on campus, and educate the local and even not-so-local community as well. Give top professors a small bursary to take their groups there for a few years and carry out normal research while making a difference in a third-world area at the same time and having the experience of a life-time to boot. Sometimes it's hard as a CS specialist to make a first-hand difference in the world's least-well-off places, but if it then pulled in money from business partnerships and interested investors, some of which stayed in the emerging economy, that may be a good thing with really wide-reaching consequences..

    OTOH, men with guns may just ruin the whole thing :-(

  56. I guess the output of a university is not simply 'research', but rather the quality and applicability of the research. Both these two quantities are not directly measured at uni's imho. So using the money to establish an office that keeps track of where and how the uni's output is used would be a good start to measure 'impact' in the first place.

  57. Tomaria el dinero, contrato profesores, y me llevo una copia de la universidad a otro pais, es decir instalar una universidad de alto prestigio en otro pais que NO SEA USA.

  58. I'd take more than half as financial aids for students all over the world (like me, here in Costa Rica). So, no extraordinary student will be left behind and will be able to contribute doing research. In other words: invest in creating a universal university. The other few $ left should be invested in creating the necessary infrastructure, services, etc. to reach the sam goal.