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Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen shoots purple Allen School T-shirts into the crowd at a University of Washington celebration of the school’s establishment. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

There’s no question that an extra $50 million will raise the University of Washington’s profile in computer science and engineering – but how high can it rise? How worried should MIT and Carnegie Mellon University be?

Here’s the message from Ed Lazowska, who’s marking his 40th year on the UW faculty and now holds the university’s Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering: Don’t worry, but make room.

“The goal here is, instead of there being a Top 4 program, to be a Top 5 program, and for us to be the fifth,” Lazowska said. “And we’re very close to that.”

The college rankings game can get pretty gnarly – particularly in a rapidly changing field like computer science and engineering. U.S. News & World Reports’ authoritative “Best Grad Schools” list puts UW at No. 6 in computer science, while other lists shuffle the deck differently.

Lazowska regards MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Berkeley as the Top 4 that are in competition with UW for faculty firepower and top-drawer students.

This week’s $40 million gift from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, supplemented by $10 million more from Microsoft, is aimed like a T-shirt cannon at boosting the prestige of the freshly minted Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

Computer science and engineering, or CSE, is already the most popular major at UW, and only about a third of the students who apply for the major get in.

The money was given with the understanding that it couldn’t go toward faculty salaries or the construction of a new $110 million computer science building. (There’s a separate fundraising effort for that.) Also, it can’t be used to boost CSE enrollment. (That’s up to Washington state’s legislature.)

Instead, the endowment will provide the Allen School with $2 million a year in seed money for outfitting labs for new faculty members, providing fellowships and scholarships for outstanding students, and supporting early-stage research.

Lazowska said UW is a trailblazer in the computer industry’s hottest frontiers – and the social implications of computer applications in energy, health care, education and transportation.

“We have a real leg up in machine learning. We’ve always been strong in computer systems,” he told GeekWire. “We have a phenomenal computer vision program here. There are lots of areas. And I think part of our distinction is, we were the first, more than a half-dozen years ago, to start talking about computer science impacting societal challenges.”

Lazowska may claim that the other schools in the Top 5 shouldn’t worry, but it does sound as if they’d better be looking over their shoulders.

“I often note to my friends at Carnegie Mellon that we’ve hired the last three holders of the Finmeccanica endowed professorship in computer science,” Lazowska said, “and we’re dying to see who they’re going to appoint next, because we’re going to hire him or her, too.”

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