There are three forces shaping the Eastside economy unlike any others. One is the growing influence of Chinese residents, who are arriving in droves and are shaping the real estate market in the process. Another is the continuing urbanization of Bellevue, particularly in downtown and the under-construction Spring District. Most prominent, though, is the glut of tech jobs in the region and the industry’s desire to amend the state’s computer science education to help fill those positions.
These three determiners were on display in Bellevue today when the University of Washington and Tsinghua University, a Beijing college that is a member of China’s Ivy League equivalent, announced that the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX), a tech-focused graduate school, will open in the Spring District in the fall of 2016. GIX is the first physical presence in the U.S. of a Chinese university, and the school will get a $40 million kick start from Microsoft.
“GIX will present students with opportunities like no other available at any university in the world today,” UW Interim President Ana Mari Cauce said in a statement. “Uniting students with faculty, professionals, industry leaders, and entrepreneurs from a variety of disciplines will foster expansive thinking and better prepare a generation of leaders with a passion for discovery and the ability to be nimble.”
The school is an undeniable win for Bellevue. The entire Bel-Red redevelopment, particularly Wright Runstad & Co.’s Spring District, was instigated by the region’s tech economy. Bellevue sees an updated Bel-Red as a mechanism for both the city and the companies within it to attract talented workers, and GIX will infuse the corridor with some of the brightest students from China and the Puget Sound area. A renowned tech graduate school also could help distance Bellevue from its image as Seattle’s lesser sibling.
GIX also helps Bellevue solidify itself as a hub for Chinese newcomers. Many are emigrating from China to the Eastside to take advantage of the area’s relatively low cost of living (an emphasis on relatively) and high-quality schools, and now students from one of China’s top universities can join the flow.
Microsoft’s investment in the project means it will be associated with, and possibly a destination for, some of the top students in the region. Forty million dollars isn’t chump change, but if GIX ends up becoming a destination for the Pacific Rim’s brightest tech students, then Microsoft will recoup its investment many times over through the recruiting and marketing perks tied to its association with the school.
GIX’s curriculum appears to be one Microsoft can appreciate (it wouldn’t be surprising to discover Microsoft had, and will continue to have, a role in developing said curriculum). The first degree GIX offers will be a master’s in technology innovation, and marketing materials say the school’s students will focus on large-scale challenges including sustainability, connected devices, and mobile health solutions. The initial class will have about 30 students, but the school could host 3,000 by 2025.
“Great universities have a lasting impact on the world around them and GIX is a big bet on the future,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement. “Our commitment to GIX is grounded in our belief that technology can empower people to achieve more and help solve the world’s biggest challenges.”
Microsoft’s gift is the second in recent weeks to the UW (it donated $10 million for a new computer science building at the school), and the GIX partnership embodies what could become a defining trait of the area economy: a partnership between tech and higher ed. There’s a well documented shortfall of tech workers in Washington, and tech companies have been clamoring to increase the number of computer science graduates from state schools. GIX is an example of a tech company footing a large part of the bill to create a brand-new school. If Microsoft reaps any of the benefits mentioned above, other corporations might partner with similar projects.
The heated debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership has yielded, if nothing else, a discussion about the importance of the Pacific Rim economy, and China and the U.S. are the undisputed powers on either side of the Pacific. The Puget Sound market is becoming increasingly intertwined with China. Bellevue, Microsoft, and the UW all gained footholds in that realm with GIX. Whether the program’s holistic curriculum will take hold remains to be seen, but the importance of the area’s tech economy and connection with China means that the burden of proof is on the side of the UW and Tsinghua. As long as the economy keeps humming and Chinese people keep moving to the Eastside, projects like GIX look like worthwhile experiments.