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A New-School Approach to Data Science

By the time you read this, I hope you will have heard the news: UVA has received a $120 million gift—the largest in our history—to establish a School of Data Science. This is an important moment in the life of the University—not only because of the size of the gift and the fact that we don’t open a new school every day, but also because of the focus of the gift and the structure of the school itself.

We are surrounded by data. Every second, information is being collected and analyzed by everything from satellites to social media accounts. It’s one reason the amount of data in the world is doubling every two years, with no sign of slowing down. This trend is creating breathtaking opportunities. Data is helping self-driving cars navigate the roads, leading to breakthroughs in the treatment of disease, and offering new insights in fields like education and business.

At the same time, the explosion of data is exposing us to serious risks. Data can be abused, stolen and shared without our permission—bringing into sharp relief the need to gather and apply it in a responsible way.

If there’s one thing of which we can be certain, it is that the future will be shaped, at least in part, by how we use data—and how we allow it to be used. As we think about how to navigate that future, I believe universities have to lead the way. To be clear, this is not something universities can or should do alone. But we are in a unique position to bring experts from different fields together with an eye toward the broader social impact of the choices we make. It’s why everything from the seat belt to the internet has been developed or refined on campuses. It’s also why we are excited to build one of the first dedicated schools of data science in the country—and a school unlike any other.

We are still in the design phase and seeking input and necessary approvals from multiple groups, including the Faculty Senate, our Board of Visitors and ultimately the State Council of Higher Education. Nonetheless, we have some clear design principles.

First, we plan to create a school that will be both independent and integrated—with satellites in other schools at UVA and stand-alone centers focused on subjects like machine learning and visualization that will help advance data science more broadly.

Second, the school will be open and transparent. Much of the research in data science and beyond is only possible thanks to widely available data. As a public university, we should abide by the same principles—making everything from policies and procedures to results and data sets easy for anyone to access.

Third, the school will be based on teams, not individuals. Unlike most schools, this one will feature a flat structure to minimize distinctions between faculty and staff, and all faculty and senior leadership will be evaluated on how they collaborate across and beyond our own University.

Finally, the school will focus on responsible data science. Through teaching and research, it will take seriously the need to think carefully about and question the ethics, policy and law surrounding the explosion of data and its impact on society.

A gift alone does not make a school. Most of the hard work is still ahead of us. But I believe we have assembled a brilliant and capable team, and I have faith that, together, we can build one of the most advanced and comprehensive schools of data science in the world—and one that is focused on using data to serve the common good. I am beyond excited to get started.

James E. Ryan
President of the University of Virginia