Seattle has top-notch engineers, well-respected technology giants and a culture of entrepreneurialism and risk taking.

So, what’s the region really lacking when it comes to becoming a world-class technology hub?

I get asked that question a lot, and many of you have shared your thoughts on the matter in the comment threads of GeekWire over the past few months.

But here’s what I think the region really needs: A world-class private university on the scale of Stanford or MIT or Carnegie Mellon.

Don’t get me wrong. The University of Washington is a huge asset for the region, and I think more should be done to make sure it is churning out some of the top minds on the planet.

But just imagine if there were another university focused on science and technology that was not subject to the budgetary woes of Olympia? Imagine a university supported and bankrolled by a tech billionaire who wanted to educate the next-generation of scientists and engineers?  Imagine a university where physics took precedence over football?

Sand Point Naval Air Station in 1955 (Now Magnusson Park)

Could it actually happen? Well, there’s certainly enough wealth in the region to support it. And we have the land. (I’d propose the former Naval Air Station at Sand Point, but I am open to other ideas too).

If you’re of the belief, as I am, that having smart people living in your neighborhoods and walking around your city streets is the best way to foster economic development, then what’s holding us back?

After all, The New York Times just reported that New York City is currently reviewing seven proposals from 17 universities (including Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Cornell) to create a new technology campus in the city. That’s part of an effort — led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to transform New York into a “mid-Atlantic Silicon Valley.”

Isn’t it time for Seattle step up and make a similar push? There’s certainly an opportunity. Citing a lack of developers and engineers to fill the roles at Seattle area tech companies, Northeastern University of Boston just announced a plan to establish a new university in the Seattle area.

I’ve laid out the private tech university theory before, floating the idea in September for a piece in Seattle Magazine titled “The Big Idea.” Here’s what I wrote:

Seattle needs to become a destination for the smartest people in the world. Microsoft,, the Institute for Systems Biology, Boeing and the University of Washington are doing their part. But we need more. So, here’s the Big Idea: We need the citizens of the state, along with some of our billionaires, to step up and create a new private university on the scale of Stanford or MIT.  

I also floated the theory in a recent appearance on Seattle Voices, hosted by Eric Liu.

In the interview, I noted how New York has supplanted Washington state in terms of venture capital, and how Seattle would be best served by making sure that there’s a well educated workforce to take advantage of strengths in engineering, software and biotechnology. (I talk about the private university concept in the video below in minute 14 and minute 26).

So, what do you think? Is the notion of a private university — either one bankrolled by the wealthy barons of Seattle or a branch of a private university — a pipe dream or a reality?

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  • Colin Wong

    Totally agreed!

  • Isaac Alexander

    Here’s some questions I’d bring up about starting a private research facility here.
    1. What other cities across the globe have started up such an institution in the past 50 years and what’s been the impact of it? Basically, has another organization provided the blueprint to follow? I know Singapore and Shanghai have started institutions, however, I’m not informed of them being either private or public.
    2. If such an institution were started, how would we measure the success of it?

    • johnhcook

      Good questions, Isaac. I haven’t studied this in-depth, but here’s the annual report from Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Qatar.

      From the report:

      “In 2004, Qatar Foundation invited Carnegie Mellon to  join Education City. Here, Qatar Foundation created a unique center for scholarship and research that is the ideal complement to Carnegie Mellon’s mission  and vision. Students from Qatar and more than 40 different countries enroll at our world-class facilities in Education City. Carnegie Mellon Qatar offers undergraduate programs in business administration,  computer science, and information systems.”

      In terms of measuring success, one measure (used by a number of institutions) is the number of grads who go into high-paying jobs. I know the UW computer science department boasts about these numbers all of the time, so it would be pretty easy to measure that, at least as a starting point.

    • FrankCatalano

      It’s slightly more than 50 years, but Harvey Mudd College – considered a world-class science and engineering school in Claremont, CA – was founded in 1955. Perhaps having a smaller institution like Harvey Mudd partner with an existing private university in Seattle to create a similar college here with a greater research focus would be another option.

  • Tom Leung

    Another option is to get a big time east coast university that wants to establish a west coast presence to open up a campus here with naming rights for one of the local billionaires (e.g. MIT’s Gates campus).  This is a bit like what Singapore did (getting Chicago, NYU, and INSEAD to establish programs there) as well as investing in its home grown universities.

  • Sunil Garg

    I absolutely concur with the need for additional high-quality educational options in the area, but I’m unconvinced that a new private university is the best option. As the state legislature continues to decrease public funding for higher education, they are effectively privatizing the state’s universities anyway.

    UW already offers world-class programs in technology. If these barons you speak of are looking for places to put their money, why can’t they funnel it into existing UW programs and increase the number of seats available for students? 

    Incidentally, physics does take precedence over football at UW. In Washington, unlike most states, no state funds, student fees, or tuition dollars are used to support athletic programs or coaching salaries, with the exception of some tuition waivers for athletes. UW’s Athletic Department is responsible for raising all of its funds, which it does via event tickets, media contracts, and donations.

  • Hanson Hosein

    Northeastern’s announcement is possible proof that there’s enough demand in our region for this kind of education.  Yes, the UW is facing major budget woes because of state funding cutbacks.  But this is also forcing it to adjust so that it’s less dependent upon public resources.  As an Advisory Board member, John knows that the program that I direct at the UW ( is entirely tuition-funded, and is not reliant on state support at all.  In many ways, this program is the model for the future of the university — for better, and maybe for “less better.”  We’re very successful, but we’re also highly attuned to market forces and we charge around $30k for the degree.  What would an institution that is focused entirely on programs like mine do with less desirable programs (i.e. that don’t lead to immediate career ROI, less skills-based), or don’t bring in adequate revenues?

    So while I acknowledge the call for more higher ed in tech “capacity” here in our region, I’m just a little wary of the focus on a “private” university.  In that way I would support Sunil’s comment here, and not just because I work at the UW.

    Perhaps GeekWire might consider convening a larger, public conversation about this.  It’s clearly an issue that we need to address one way or another.  I might also take it on in a future episode of our Four Peaks TV show.

  • Jon Cohen

    The world class private universities get their research funding from the federal government, so to create a new one you would have to convince the granting agencies that a new one is needed. MIT, Stanford and so on have the advantage of close proximity to major industrial and job markets that span many large cities. MIT is at one end of the Bos-Wash corridor, with DC being day trip back and forth for a meeting. Seattle is relatively isolated by comparison. With video conferencing improving, that will help, but for government planning you have to get a lot of constituencies together in various side meetings, which means you have to be in-person. Silicon Valley has a critical mass that makes a cross country trip worth it. Does Seattle? For some specific areas related to Microsoft and Boeing, plus the various military bases in the area it does. Creating a small institute around that would grow in the future might be the way to go.

    • Sunil Garg

      I don’t think Seattle’s location is a barrier to federal funding, as is evidenced by the fact that UW receives more federal funding for research than any other public university in the country. Including private universities, UW ranks second to Johns Hopkins.

  • Anonymous

    If the Seattle tech barons don’t invite in startups why would they donate to a university. Certainly between Gates, Ballmer, McCaw, etc., there is enough money to endow (say to the tune of $4b-5b) a small private university that is technology and engineering focused say the size of Princeton with 4000-5000 undergrads. It will likely take at least a decade before the university is established enough to really attract top notch students unless it did something innovative like making the institution free or heavily subsidized. Most of the elite private institution in the country (re: Ivy League) could actually afford to provide students with free or close to free tuition given the size of the endowments.

  • Mark Brophy

    You want Seattle to emulate New York, where Mayor Bloomberg is evaluating proposals for private universities? Why do you want the government to lead the effort? Wouldn’t it be better for the private sector to build a private university?

    • johnhcook

      Well, to be clear I think the best bet would be a private university, supported by an “angel” or two from Seattle. But I think involvement from city and state government would be key to help foster the new institution. For example, the city could enter into an attractive lease arrangement with the private university on city property, such as Magnusson Park at Sand Point or some other location.
      That appears to be how NYC is approaching things.

      John Cook
      Co-founder, GeekWire

  • Will Hartmann

    John, this is an idea I’ve had for a while as well.  Besides the reasons you give above why another world class university would be good for the region, I would argue that New U would be good for UW as well.  Competition brings out the best in companies and it does the same for our best universities.  The UW/WSU rivalry is great, but having a crosstown rival makes the competition all the more immediate.  Just as Berkeley competes with Stanford, MIT with Harvard, UW needs a strong rival close by to make it even better.
    Also many of the best professors have a spouse in academia as well and having a second great university where the spouse could get a position, would make it easier for UW and New U to attract the best talent in the world.

  • Isaac Alexander

    John, I take it the list of candidates you’d like to see open a branch campus here are members of this organization. dovetails into another idea. Instead of having one “big” private technical university, how about a “cluster” of them? Basically have a cluster of 3-4 technical universities in the city covering a variety of technical specialties. 

    Here’s a Carnegie Mellon study done in 2004 about university clusters

    I think it would be pretty wild to have branch campuses of both CalTech and MIT in Seattle.

    Funding wouldn’t be a problem. It would be the political(private & public) “will” to make something like this happen. 

  • Isaac Alexander

    Here’s the list of candidates I believe John is looking at.

    California Institute of Technology (Caltech)Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)Case Western Reserve UniversityClarkson UniversityThe Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and ArtDrexel UniversityEmbry-Riddle Aeronautical UniversityFranklin W. Olin College of EngineeringHarvey Mudd CollegeIllinois Institute of TechnologyKeck Graduate InstituteKettering UniversityLawrence Technological UniversityMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)Milwaukee School of EngineeringPolytechnic Institute of NYURensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)Rose-Hulman Institute of TechnologyStevens Institute of TechnologyWebb InstituteWorcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)

  • rob

    How much money do you really need to have a world class computer science department?  You would only be paying for buildings and professors, it can’t cost a ton of money.  

  • Janis Machala

    I am on the board of trustees at Lake Washington Institute of Technology (we are migrating Lake Washington Technical College into a polytechnice like Oregon did in Klamath Falls with OIT; we are one of the few states without an applied technical college) and I worked at UW in their Tech Transfer organization so I wanted to qualify my comments with full-disclosure. I also helped Northeastern research the market and look at the opportunity–we are seriously under-represented graduate degree wise than our counterpart technology centers around the country. Not sure why exactly but suspect it is many factors. Northeastern has grown significantly globally over the past 10 years and one of their key models is a coop model which provides students with real-world applied experience in addition to research experience. They fill a great void in our system. By the way, there’s a strong movement to take UW private since so little money comes from  our legislature (something the UCLA Haas School is in the process of doing and a number of other state institutions are considering around the country). If that occurs then there’s many more opportunities and growth plans that UW can accomplish.

    I looked at the idea of a private STEM-oriented university for our state via the billionaire funding model and maybe corporate and foundation endowments. Another model I considered is a public-private partnership much like Singapore, Qatar, etc. have done in attracting world class researchers and schools to their locales. Once I heard about Northeastern’s interested, though, given they are a private non-profit, I stopped the exploration because they have so many of the perfect elements already in place. We should wholly embrace their plans as well as the privitization of UW and the Lake Washington Institute of Technology migration to a 4 year applied STEM institution. With those 3 paths we should be in a much better and robust state for what our state needs.

    • Chris McCoy

      Really solid thoughts here, Janis. Thanks for sharing. 

  • Orin

    First question: who’s going to pay for this? Certainly not the taxpayers; MSFT, GOOG, et al don’t seem inclined to take a few shovelfuls from their respective mountains of cash to fund such a thing.

    Second question: Why? The business world (even MSFT & GOOG) have made it clear those skills are only worth the pittance paid to digital sweatshop workers in the far corners of the globe. Said proles can work in their own cities and countries thanks to the wonders of telecommunication, so it would make more sense for those nations supplying the proles to create technical institutes in the manner of India and China.

    The region anchored by Seattle is only a tech hub because Bill Gates’ mother lived here; if you truly believe Microsoft (and Boeing) are still going to be around in 20 years, you simply aren’t paying attention…

  • Bryan Starbuck

    I sure wish this would happen.  The UW keeps their number of CS students too small.  It has the reputation.  It needs to find a way to scale without letting quality drop.

    I think we should have other majors subsidize CS majors.  If CS majors only paid 40% of the normal UW fees, it would be a draw for great CS majors across the country.  Then we could scale the number of CS majors and keep the quality high — because the best CS majors across the country would love to come here.

    CS majors often want to stay in Seattle when they graduate. They are key to us growing our high technology companies that provide many jobs and at high wages.

    I’d also love to see CS students be able to get credit for spending a semester working for a startup.  My “Computer Architecture” class at UCSD was a joke.  UCSD taught obsolete architecture methods — the kinds that are probably used by the IRS spending hundreds of millions on a failed computer system.  Students could lunch much more real world engineering in a startup.

    • Ryan Roemer

      Don’t disagree with your overall point of learning outside the classroom, or your particular architecture class experience at UCSD. I would chime in that generally speaking, UCSD’s architecture program is top notch, and I found the substance of both the undergrad and grad architecture courses relevant and enough to get me by as a non-architecture software developer.

      As an interesting side note, there’s a lot of academic crossover between UW and UCSD professors (particularly in systems/networking), so much so, I have seen UCSD CSE jokingly referred to as “UW South”.

  • Spencer Rascoff

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and have talked with Andy Sack, Dan Levitan and a few other Seattle tech leaders about it. Zillow is ready, willing and able to help in any way we can. This is the type of thing that could transform Seattle and really catapult our tech community — and the city — to greatness.

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