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Amazon pays a retroactive bounty after hiring Seattle U computer science chair


By David Schwartz
Published: January 19th, 2021

Amazon is making a big donation to Seattle University to create an endowed chair to lead its Computer Science Department — but that’s not the whole story.

The online behemoth hired away the former chair of the department, Roshanak Roshandel, who has become Amazon’s principal product manager for Alexa Experience. That prompted

Michael Quinn, dean of the university’s College of Science and Engineering, to work with the advancement office in asking Amazon to endow a chair in computer science – a sort of quid pro quo for poaching their valuable professor.

In response, Drew Herdener, an Amazon vice president and Seattle University trustee, told  Quinn in an e-mail that the company agreed that it was “a golden opportunity for Amazon to help raise the profile and firepower of the person who would replace Roshanak, and in turn the reputation of Seattle U and Seattle U Computer Science.”

The e-mail described the endowment as a $3 million gift to Seattle University, but it’s not clear if the amount changed as the endowment was finalized. The search for the new departmental leader is underway.

Universities for years have struggled to stave off the poaching of star faculty by technology companies that can offer higher salaries and other perks. But Amazon and some other tech companies have paid back those schools in a sense. In addition to the Seattle U arrangement, Amazon funded two $1 million professorship endowments at the University of Washington in 2012 after the company hired two star researchers.

Ed Lazowska, a long-time leader at the UW’s School of Computer Science & Engineering, praised Amazon’s gift. “I think it’s really huge. It’s almost unprecedented,” Lazowska said, adding that when recruiting a department chair from outside, an endowed chair “is a great lure.”

Amazon has supported Seattle University in the past, announcing a $3 million contribution in May 2019 to help fund a new Center for Science and Innovation. The company also made a $10 million gift in 2016 for a U Washington computer science building.

Herdener spelled out the potential benefits of the endowed position in an e-mail, noting that  “Amazon wants to help Seattle U hire someone who is going to attract top-notch faculty and students to SU Computer Science and STEM programs in general, and in particular, [Black, Latinx and Native American] and female students — groups that are sorely underrepresented in STEM today. We’re hoping that using the Amazon brand and our gift will help Seattle U make that happen.”

Roshandel didn’t sign on with Amazon out of the blue. She had been working with the company while still at the university and took a year-long sabbatical as an Amazon scholar beginning in October 2018, then worked with the Amazon Care initiative, a virtual healthcare benefit being piloted with employees in Seattle.

Source: GeekWire

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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