With new name and $15M donation, University of Utah hopes to diversify its computer school

With high demand for tech-savvy workers, Utah companies are hitting a “bottleneck” in hiring for technology and computing jobs.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Philanthropist Heather Kahlert and Mary Hall, who leads the University of Utah's School of Computing, at the U.'s Warnock Engineering Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. The Kahlert Foundation is donating $15 million to the computing school.

Heather Kahlert once took her daughter, who was then 13, along to a meeting at a developer boot camp.

Her daughter quickly “fell in love” with computer programming, she said. To help the eighth grader attend a full-time developer bootcamp, Kahlert switched her to homeschooling.

At 14, Kahlert said, her daughter was receiving job offers for well-paying developer positions.

Now, as vice president of the Kahlert Foundation, Kahlert oversaw its new $15 million donation to the University of Utah’s School of Computing, which will be named for her family.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone had access to that kind of education, and to just expand it, make it more visible, make it elevated,” Kahlert said in an interview before the donation was announced Thursday.

The donation follows a previous $15 million donated by the Price family last year as the starting funds to construct a $120 million building to house computer science students, giving them their own space for the first time.

Utah has more tech jobs than workers, and the industry — here and across the country — is dominated by men. The proportion of women receiving degrees in computer science nationally peaked in 1985 to 1986 at 36%, then fell to just 18% in 2010 to 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It has been rising slowly since then.

Through her philanthropy and connections with members of Utah’s tech community, Kahlert noticed the “bottleneck” in hiring for technology and computing jobs and sought to help the Beehive State produce more tech-savvy workers.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Previously, she put in place the Kahlert Initiative on Technology, a certificate program at the U. that allows students of any major to earn a digital literacy certificate.

Computer science is the most popular major choice at the U., but like many programs in the U.S., there’s still a stark gender disparity in undergraduate students.

[Read more: $15 million to the University of Utah and $25 million to Utah Valley University will expand computer science programs]

The proportion of students who identified as women in the undergraduate program has risen from 12% in fall 2012 to 19% this fall. The major has 1,822 total students registered for fall, counting undeclared students who plan to study computer science.

This increase is not incidental, said Mary Hall, director of the School of Computing at the University of Utah.

The Utah Center for Inclusive Computing, funded with a grant from the Northeastern Center for Inclusive Computing, focuses on recruiting and supporting a diverse student base.

The goal of the grant is to change the field in the course of five years — the program has been around for two.

“We want the people who are developing technology to be representative of people that use technology, and everybody uses technology,” Hall said.

Some strategies for diversifying the department include recruiting students from more communities, providing more support, such as mentorship, and providing more options for how students study.

For example, the school has a new software development major, which “has a more human centered emphasis” involving work with clients, Hall said, reaching a different group of students who might not be interested in jobs that focus on programming alone.

“University of Utah is really doing its part in trying to highlight women,” Kahlert said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The alignment of the goals of the School of Computing and those of the Kahlert Foundation is really perfect, Hall said.

With the new donation, the school plans to provide more support for students through efforts like the Bridge Program — a two-week kind of crash course which ran for the first time for computer science students this summer.

The program is meant to enable certain students who are less confident in their abilities to get some extra training, learn about the field and build connections with other students and faculty before the term begins, Hall said. She looks forward to having sustained funding for it.

The department’s faculty will grow as well, with 12 new faculty in 2022 and eight more hires planned for 2023, Hall said. The U. has seen an unprecedented increase in its undergraduate class sizes, with 5,400 new first-year students enrolled in fall term.

Kahlert described the donation as a way to support Utah’s education of those in tech, so that they in turn can serve the community.

“We want to grow our relationship with industry and build an ecosystem for computing in Utah,” Hall said.

The University of Utah was one of four original “nodes” of the computer network that later evolved into the internet. Engineering Dean Richard Brown noted Thursday that the U.’s program also is recognized as the birthplace of computer graphics.

“By endowing the School of Computing, the Kahlert Foundation is securing the future of one of the University of Utah’s most storied departments,” Brown said.

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The school’s legacy is “very impressive,” Hall said, but considering the growth of the program, “I believe that when the hundred-year history of the School of Computing is written, this period, 2022, will be just as consequential.”

The U.’s computer science students once were taught in the Merrill Engineering Building, which is more than 60 years old, but it’s literally falling apart and the classrooms are much too small. While graduate students continue to use that building, undergraduates learn in classrooms across campus, mostly in the social and behavioral health building.

The U. last year named three notable engineering alumni to lead the fundraising effort for the new building: John Warnock of Adobe, Ed Catmull of Pixar and Shane Robison, who has led at Apple, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard and Fusion-io.

Leto Sapunar is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.