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CMU's westward expansion bogs down in slow economy

Thursday, July 26, 2001

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The slump in high technology coupled with regulatory delays have caused Carnegie Mellon University to scale back plans for a West Coast campus in California's Silicon Valley.

The project, unveiled in January 2000, initially called for spending $125 million or more to erect new buildings at NASA's Ames Research Center over the next decade. But the school now says it will settle, at least for the immediate future, on spending no more than $20 million to renovate three existing naval buildings at the center.

Those buildings became available in recent months because demand for real estate in the Silicon Valley has slumped along with the economy.

Opening the campus remains a high priority, said Jim Morris, dean of Carnegie Mellon's computer science school. But the slowdown's impact on fund raising among wealthy alumni and other West Coast venture capitalists has forced Carnegie Mellon to revisit the project, which was supposed to be financed almost exclusively by those contributions.

"We were hoping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars instantly but that hasn't happened, frankly," Morris said yesterday. "But we see the strategic importance of this campus regardless of the economic conditions in the Silicon Valley."

The school hopes to resurrect its construction plans as economic conditions improve, Morris said.

"We always said we were going to ramp this thing up slowly and, in fact, rather than saying we will have 1,000 students there immediately, we will have 200 students there," he said.

In another development, the school announced that Raj Reddy, Morris's predecessor at Carnegie Mellon and a mover-and-shaker in the computer world, will serve as director of the new campus.

Instead of enrolling the first students this fall, the school now expects to offer its first classes in January in software engineering and electronic commerce, with more to follow in fall 2002. Many of the students will be enrolled in a master of science and information technology program.

"We think they will be either part-time students working for Silicon Valley companies or people who don't have a job and are looking to upgrade their skills," Morris said.

The three historic buildings being used will be leased from NASA and were once part of the Moffett Field Naval Air Station. Two of them will be used for classrooms and offices and a third will house up to 200 students and visiting faculty.

The Carnegie Mellon campus is just one part of up to 5 million square feet of development involving NASA Ames, say planners in Mountain View, a city of 75,000 in the San Francisco Bay area where the center is located. Others that have expressed interest in a presence there include the University of California at Santa Cruz, Lockheed Martin and related business and research interests.

The original plan to develop 10 to 20 buildings on 15 acres within NASA Ames was slowed by an environmental impact study. The Silicon Valley was booming, and there were fears that the presence of Carnegie Mellon and other tenants would worsen local traffic.

Morris said Carnegie Mellon raised nearly $1 million in seed money but did not have to raise additional money because the project was still awaiting environmental approvals. Even then, finding donors would have been harder than a couple of years ago.

"We have a lot of friends out there and they are all encouraging us to come but they are all reassessing their ability to contribute to things such as universities," Morris said.

The environmental study is not expected to be finished until fall. Morris said he does not believe that the renovation work would require any similar study.

Founded in 1939 as an aircraft research laboratory, NASA Ames now focuses on areas including information technology research and development and aviation operations systems. It also deals with astrobiology, which is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and destiny of life in the universe.

NASA Ames has said it wants to encourage collaboration with Carnegie Mellon in research areas that include automated reasoning, human-centered computing and high-performance computing and networking.

Carnegie Mellon sees a teaching and research presence there as a way for the school and the city of Pittsburgh to gain a greater foothold in the high-tech mecca.

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