The School of Data Science has come a long way in just a short amount of time. 

So, let’s take a walk down memory lane. 

In 2012, Don Brown, who was a professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering, saw a momentum and enthusiasm for data science growing and began brainstorming with a group on how to grow data science at UVA.

“It suddenly clicked: We can have a presence in this space,” he says. The group went to the provost at the time, John Simon, and University President Teresa Sullivan, with their idea to carve out a space for UVA to tackle data science. And they were all in,” Brown explained. “We had incredible support from the top, and there was this grassroots, groundswell of effort and of interest.” 

In 2013, the Data Science Institute [DSI] was established as the University’s first pan-University institute, which granted graduate degrees in data science and furthered research. Brown was the Founding Director. The first cohort of MS in Data Science students graduated from the DSI in May 2015, and the collaborative research projects and recruiting opportunities expanded, allowing for increased infrastructure, and hiring.

The DSI was established to connect departments and programs together across the University to further collaborative, interdisciplinary research. Since the beginning of the DSI, there has been a strong dual mission of education and research. 

In 2017, Phil Bourne, a distinguished biomedical scholar, became the director of the DSI, tasked with elevating research and expanding the educational programs. Bourne came to DSI from the National Institutes of Health [NIH], where he was the first Associate Director for Data Science. During his time at NIH, he developed the Data Commons, a virtual platform centered on collaboration, where researchers can store and share data. Tasked with furthering the research mission of the Data Science Institute, Bourne brought leadership focused on collaboration and interdisciplinary research from his time at NIH. 

In January of 2019, the University of Virginia received a gift of $120 million from the Quantitative Foundation that was matched in part by the UVA Bicentennial Professorship and Bicentennial Scholars Funds, to form the School of Data Science. This was the largest private donation in University history. 

Bourne recalled the process of creating the school itself. 

When Bourne knew the $120 million gift might be a possibility, he went to UVA President Elect, at the time, Jim Ryan. With this transformational gift, at a transformational time, leadership at the University began communicating with Bourne and DSI about the potential of a School. 

Bourne recalled President Ryan wanting to know how a School of Data Science would add value to the University as a whole, how it would be sustained and were the other schools on board as vital collaborators 

With that, Bourne and the team at DSI got to work. 

He recalled planning, brainstorming, budgeting, and popularizing the idea of a school with various factions, most notably the deans. The team at DSI began to write a manifesto, which would later be proposed to the faculty senate for the establishment of a school and defined some key aspects of the structure of the school. 

Bourne and leadership at DSI had a vision for the School of Data Science to drive a shift in academic culture, from siloing research efforts to collaborating among experts throughout different departments at the University. “Data Science is truly a collaborative effort, and so the organization, policies, business model, and financial structure as well as the research agenda and academic programs had to follow that model,” said Arlyn Burgess, Chief of Staff for the school said of the initial development process.

With continued planning, building financial spreadsheets, and discussions, support for the school grew. After approval by the deans, Bourne explained that the School had to then be approved by the Faculty Senate and the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV). 

Nine months after the gift from the Quantitative Foundation, all of the hard work and grit paid off.  

On September 17, 2019, SCHEV gave final approval for the creation of the twelfth school at the University, the School of Data Science. Designed to be a “School without Walls,” the School of Data Science was officially established to be the first school of its kind, centered on collaboration, open data, shared knowledge, responsible data science, and discovery. 

With this also came an additional gift from Beth and Scott Stephenson to create the Stephenson Dean of the School of Data Science, which is now Bourne’s official title. 

“We came to the notion of what philosophically what we wanted the school to accomplish, the notion of responsible data science and real societal benefit in what we do,” Bourne said. “Then [we created a] set of guiding principles, which really are those things plus openness and transparency and excellence. We're gradually moving ourselves forward in that way.”

With the graduation of the sixth cohort of students in 2020, the full-time residential Masters of Science in Data Science program continues to draw students from all over the world. Building off the success of the residential program, the School of Data Science created a fully functioning, online Masters of Science in Data Science program for working professionals. The online program currently has 149 students enrolled, with the first cohort set to graduate this December.

Additionally, the School has also invested in Executive Education. Staying true to its mission of being a School without Walls, these programs are offered in collaboration with other schools, such as the Darden School of Business, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the McIntire School of Commerce, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. 

In July of 2020, the minor in Data Science was approved, providing an avenue for undergraduate students to get involved in data science. 

“The minor is an on-ramp for a broad spectrum of undergraduates to acquire quantitative skills for working in a data driven society,” said Bourne. 

The establishment of the minor is a precursor to a 4-year major degree in data science, which Bourne noted will build on the undergraduate courses created for the minor. 

“The minor provides a much-needed pathway for students to explore the core concepts of data science,” Brian Wright, Professor at the School of Data Science, said. “It also allows students to feel confident when they enter careers or graduate work that has an emphasis on data-related skills.”

What is going on at the School of Data Science now? 

Several exciting things. 

The faculty and staff are expanding, as SDS continues to hire professors, researchers, administrators, and more. There has been an increase in the faculty base and representation, both in the field and at the School. Dean Bourne has been a champion for equality, emphasizing the importance of inclusion in building a school that is the first of its kind. He spoke about inequality in his Dean’s blog

Bourne explained how crucial this process is. 

“We're about to make a large step this year by really increasing the faculty base,” Bourne noted. “And that's really absolutely prerequisite to everything else we might do going forward. We need the human capital to help develop, become open, and start new programs.”

“We're actually creating a foundation for what the university is really going to look like, and what it represents,” Bourne said of the structure of the new school. “I think the openness and the ‘School without Walls’ notion is something that has become very ingrained in the thinking of the University at large.”