MSOE Unveils $34 Million Building
Four-story academic building to be funded by largest alumni gift in school history.
The Milwaukee School of Engineering has received the largest gift in its history from a former student. Dr. Dwight Diercks, a 1990 graduate of the downtown school, and his wife Dian will contribute $34.3 million to support the development of the Dwight and Dian Diercks Computational Science Hall. As part of the development, the university will add a computer science program to augment their existing software and computer engineering degree programs.
The new hall will be a four-story, 64,000 square-foot building located at the northwest corner of E. State St. and N. Milwaukee St. The facility will house classrooms, faculty offices and a 250-seat auditorium. According to MSOE President Dr. John Walz, “the building will contain a number of state-of-the-art Nvidia computers.” The facility, which will house the new degree program, will be utilized by students from all degree programs.
During remarks before a packed gymnasium at the university’s Kern Center building, Diercks, who is the senior vice president of software engineering at Nvidia and also an MSOE regent, touted the transformational power of the project, noting “in the heart of this campus where we have a really ugly parking lot, we are going to put a really beautiful building.”
Diercks stressed the universality of the building’s focus – artificial intelligence — noting that it is used today in everything from examining radiology charts and mapping the human genome to managing the networks for companies like Lyft and Uber and powering self-driving cars.
Walz characterized the move as “planting a flag” in a space that he sees becoming increasingly important. He predicted the new facility will draw students and corporate partners to the university.
MSOE and Diercks have one key thing moving in their favor to make this deal possible, the rapid rise of NVIDIA stock. Since Dr. Walz became President on July 1st, 2016, the stock has risen from $46.66 to $198.35 per share (having already doubled in the preceding year). If Diercks, who noted he has been thinking about this for a number of years, was simply giving the gift as NVIDIA stock, the value of his gift has gone from $8.07 million to $34.3 million in under 16 months.
The rapid rise of Nvidia’s stock isn’t lost on Diercks, who noted in an interview that 10 years ago the model for philanthropy was the generosity of Robert Kern or Eckhart Grohmann (the two financed the university’s four newest buildings), and that back then he might have been able to chip in a couple computers from Nvidia. Not anymore.
Diercks joined Nvidia 23 years ago as its 22nd employee. Today the company employs over 11,000 people (with Diercks supervising thousands of them) and has a market cap of over $118 billion. It is headquartered in Santa Clara, California. The company initiated a major focus on artificial intelligence in 2012.
Nvidia designs graphic processing units as well as system on a chip units for mobile devices and automobiles. Their technology is used for everything from making video games display on a screen to orienting self-driving vehicles.
Observers will note that the proposed building’s facade borrows elements from two other recent MSOE buildings, the Kern Center, where the announcement was held, and the Viets Field Parking Garage. The buildings were all designed by long-time MSOE architectural partner Uihlein/Wilson – Ramlow/Stein Architects.
The site hasn’t always been a parking lot. It was the long-time home of the Welsh Presbyterian Church. It was built in 1854, and demolished by the university in 1988. More recently, MSOE demolished the “C Building” on the south end of the site in 2005. The C Building was originally built by the nearby German English Academy and was acquired by the university in 1948 and used as an administrative building by MSOE.
The new building underwritten by Diercks will back up to the Grohmann Museum and former German English Academy, which houses classrooms, an art collection and a rooftop gathering space for the school. That building opened in 2007.
Walz anticipates that the school will break ground on the new building in July or August of next year, with a planned opening in Fall 2019.
Not overlooked in the day’s ceremony was the man who coordinated the past few decades of MSOE’s growth, Dr. Hermann Viets. The retired school president, just the fourth in its history, died in his sleep earlier this month. Board of Regents chairman Scott Moon noted that he had reached Viets in late September with the news about the deal, with Viets responding “that’s terrific.”
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