The University of Maryland is working to establish itself as the premier virtual reality research center in the nation, and on Thursday it received a huge public sector vote of confidence.
The Department of Computer Science at UMd will have all of the private donations it receives of at least $500,000 for endowed professorships doubled by a new state-led initiative called the Maryland E-Nnovation Initiative fund (MEI).
“[The MEI] is designed to spur private donations to universities for applied research in scientific and technical fields,” UMd announced today.
Under the fund, $8.5 million will be appropriated by Md.’s sitting governor, annually, from fiscal 2016 through 2021, according to the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development. As such, current Md. Governor Larry Hogan will be its inaugural overseer. UMd is one of six Md.-based higher education institutions to receive support by the new fund. The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) is the author and manager of the MEI.
“The world’s best universities attract and support distinguished educators by endowing academic chairs. With this state funding, we can recruit two more outstanding faculty members,” said Jayanth Banavar, dean of the UMD College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, in a statement.
The news comes just one year after a massive $31 million donation by Oculus CEO and UMd Alum Brendan Iribe to fund the creation of an “innovation center”—called the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Innovation—which will house new research dedicated towards a number of burgeoning disciplines, including robotics, virtual reality and drone research.
As a result of the new fund, UMd will essentially command double the resources it would normally control (via donations) to arm its visionary research facility and growing Computer Science department with the best professors from around the country. The MEI will only double donations made specifically to endowed professorships. It is unclear, at the moment, why the MEI is solely focused on matching private funds raised only in support of endowed chairs.
A 2014 fiscal report by the USM Foundation shows that UMd’s 2014 endowment totaled $369 million.
The planned construction of the Iribe innovation center is scheduled to begin early next year and will be completed within 3 years. The assertive research facility will be located at the forefront of UMd’s College Park campus—alongside Campus Drive—making what appears to be an apparent and pointed statement about the university’s future focus on computer science-related education.
The MEI will be matching a $1.5 million donation made by Elizabeth Iribe, the mother of Brendan, last year to establish The Paul Chrisman Iribe Chair of Computer Science. The Paul Chrisman Iribe Chair, which the university is currently looking to fill, will be occupied by a leading academic figure and pioneer in virtual reality research.
“The addition of new faculty focused on virtual and augmented reality will greatly enhance our efforts in establishing the University of Maryland as a worldwide leader in these immersive, interactive technologies. We are very excited for the future,” said Professor Amitabh Varshney, the Director of UMd’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), in a statement.
Varshney will be teaching UMd’s first ever VR course in the Spring of 2016, where students will be developing software through the Unity Game Engine. Varshney previously told DC Inno that the class was only viable because of the money donated by Iribe and because VR technology has become progressively cheaper.
The matching $1.5 million by the MEI for The Chrisman Iribe Chair will be used to establish yet another chair, name for Reginald Hahne, a former Howard County-based professor of the Oculus CEO. A search is ongoing to fill the newly established chair as well.
“[Ms. Iribe’s] gift to Computer Science came at a crucial time as interest in Computer Science and VR is accelerating. The matching chair program allows the department to build significant strength in this burgeoning area, where we currently have only one faculty member. Her gift is a game changer for the department, and will only help us in our endeavor to remain one of the top Computer Science Departments in the country and in the world,” said CS Department Chair Professor Samir Khuller in a statement.