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UCI Donald Bren School Boosts Profile

Record $35.5M from alumni Butterworths

Story originally published in the March 13 issue of the Orange County Business Journal 

Marios Papaefthymiou, dean of the highly ranked computer school at University of California, Irvine, says he has the best job on the planet.

From the looks of it, the data suggests he’s not exaggerating.

UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences—or ICS for short—has a thriving student body of more than 4,000 students.

Companies clamor to come and recruit, while the school has been reaching out to high schoolers to get them interested in computer studies.

ICS occupies three full buildings in the middle of campus while sharing a fourth nearby.
The school made headlines about a month ago when the university received the largest alumni gift in its history—a pledge of about $35.5 million from alumni Paul Butterworth and his wife, Jo. The money will be used for ICS students and programs.

“Paul is such an inspiring person,” Dean Papaefthymiou told the Business Journal on a tour of the school on Feb. 17. “He’s genuinely passionate about what we do, and he sees the value.”

That passion led the Butterworths, already longtime benefactors of UCI, to name the university as a beneficiary of their estate.

The donation will eventually be allocated in a variety of ways by ICS, including awards, scholarships and fellowships for students and to finance new research initiatives and faculty chairs.


Success Started

“You could say UCI is where all of my success really started,” Butterworth, a California tech giant who co-founded enterprise software developer Vantiq Inc., said in a Feb. 13 statement, according to the Bren School’s website.

ICS is the “only independent computing school” in the University of California system, according to the school’s website.

Founded as a free-standing department in 1968, it became an independent school with three departments—Computer Science, Informatics and Statistics—in 2002.

In 2004, the school adopted benefactor Donald Bren’s name in recognition of the OC business leader’s $20 million contribution and his leadership.

ICS offers seven undergraduate majors including computer science, data science, informatics and software engineering along with master’s and Ph.D. graduate programs.

Papaefthymiou, the Ted and Janice Smith Family Foundation dean, joined the school in 2017.

Since then, he says the number of graduate students has almost doubled to slightly more than 1,000 today along with more than 3,000 undergraduates.

Leading alumni include Laguna Beach-native Roy Fielding, the primary architect of the HTTP protocol for internet use, and Paul Mockapetris, inventor of the Domain Name System that helps users navigate the internet.

U.S. News & World Report ranked UCI 24th in the nation for computer science in the 2022-2023 ratings of undergraduate programs. Both software engineering and game design undergraduate programs were ranked No. 9, while the statistics graduate program was No. 18 among public universities, according to the U.S. News 2022 rankings.


Hiring Strength

Finding jobs for the graduates is also a strong point.

Every October, company representatives come to the campus for a recruitment event.

“We limit the number of companies that come,” according to Papaefthymiou. Last year, about 30 companies were on hand, with the number likely to increase to 40 soon and eventually to 50, the dean said.

The proof is in the hiring: more than 94% of the students in the professional master’s program have a job within three months after graduation, according to the most recent data cited by the dean. Hiring for those with an undergraduate degree is also strong though specific data aren’t available.

“We’ll see how it is this year because it’s a slower market, at least when it comes to the signature names,” added Papaefthymiou, noting that the biggest companies tend to pay the most.

“Approximately 10% of our students are international. Approximately 10% are from out of state,” he said.

More than 25% of undergraduates are female.


Summer Academy

The school last year started the ICS Summer Academy—two-week modules for high school students.

“We plan to add half a dozen modules in the next couple of years,” according to the dean.
In addition to finding new student talent, the summer programs will help the school increase diversity among the student population.

ICS faculty members, many of whom are members of prestigious professional organizations, have extensive training in traditional computer science, as well as engineering, mathematics and statistics, and the social sciences.

The school’s stand-alone structure, as opposed to being part of an engineering school, enables the faculty to take the broadest possible view of computer science and information technology.

The tour for the Business Journal included a stop at the Computer Game Science Lab, since such extra activities form a part of the overall education.

“You do at least as much outside the classroom,” Papaefthymiou said.


Very Optimistic

The dean is “very optimistic” about continuing demand for information and computer sciences specialists, with a strong market for talent.

“The demand for the next decade is more than 500,000 new jobs,” he said, referring to federal government data.

Tracking starting salaries for ICS graduates with a bachelor’s degree is difficult because of the wide variety of specialties involved, such as cybersecurity and programming, while prior experience can also be figured into the compensation package.

However, anecdotal feedback indicates that an ICS graduate with a bachelor of science degree in one of the ICS majors can command a starting salary of $70,000 to over $100,000 per year, while someone with a master’s degree can probably expect to start a new job at around $120,000 to $130,000 per year.

Third-year student Nicole Pham from Los Angeles, a computer science major, says she’ll graduate this spring and then head up to San Francisco for a full-time job she has lined up.

She credits the Bren School with having a welcoming community that fosters “a lot of interests within computer science” with plenty of related opportunities to get involved.

“One of the reasons why I chose computer science is that I really like problem-solving. Computer science is a fun way for me to figure out how to break down problems and fix them,” she said.

Wentao Chen, a third-year student computer science and engineering major from Davis, says “the faculty are all really approachable and really nice,” while he himself is planning to pursue graduate work and is thinking of going into academia.

Getting the right faculty for the school is very competitive as computer sciences programs expand.

“We don’t always get the people that we extend offers to,” Papaefthymiou said. “But we compete.”

Currently, the Bren School’s faculty stands at more than 100, counting full-time and lecturers.
While he isn’t currently teaching in the classroom, Papaefthymiou says his 10-hour days dealing with students and faculty almost feel like one big teaching session.

“You’re part of the action,” he says. “It’s the best job on the planet.”


Pandemic Predictions Possible;
College Admissions, No


Super-sophisticated computers may one day help to predict pandemics, according to Marios Papaefthymiou, dean of the of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine.

“Depending on what inputs they have and how extensively they have awareness of what’s happening, I can see a world in which computers can be much more helpful in predicting pandemic outbursts,” Papaefthymiou told the Business Journal.

“It’s not sci-fi, it’s a question of what kind of infrastructure you have. It’s a question of how you deal with issues around privacy and medical information. In principle, absolutely feasible.”

One example of a look into the future that computers won’t get right: which high school seniors will be admitted to the college of their choice.

As the dean says, that falls into the category of “undecideable” and hence without a clear answer that would calm nervous high schoolers and their parents.

UCI’s undergraduate admissions are handled by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions using a “holistic review.”

“They look at many different aspects of the applicant,” Papaefthymiou said.
—Kevin Costelloe



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Kevin Costelloe
Kevin Costelloe
Tech reporter at Orange County Business Journal

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