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$15 Million from Gates Better Spent at MIT


Tom Karlo

Column by Thomas R. Karlo
Contributing Editor

This week computer billionaire Bill Gates donated 15 million dollars to his alma mater, Harvard University. The Boston Globe quoted Gates as saying that it was a "fun thing to do."

The donation was Gates's single largest donation to date. Gates, who was ranked by Forbes magazine in October as the world's richest man, founded the software giant Microsoft after dropping out of Harvard in 1975 as a sophomore.

The donated money will be used to consolidate Harvard's divisions of engineering and applied sciences in a single building. That fact alone should have caused Gates some concern. In case he hasn't thought about this yet, the following open letter should help ensure he's putting his money in the right place:

Dear Mr. Gates,

It has come to my attention that you have begun to donate large sums of money to some of our smaller universities. While I realize you are a generous and charitable fellow and view the contributions as a selfless handout, I also know you're one shrewd businessman. And I think you should know that despite what the folks up the river may have told you, you're not getting the most for your money. So if you haven't mailed that check yet, take a minute to read this.

Yes, I know you attended Harvard for a while. But let's face it - you obviously realized after just a few years that it was a waste of time. Do you really want to inflict this time drain on other budding tycoons? Just think - if you had started earlier, you'd probably own everything by now, instead of just half of everything.

I know they're going to name at least one building after you and maybe even a faculty chair, and you'll probably get an honorary degree at some point. (Being a dropout is kind of a drag at posh dinner parties, isn't it?)

But hey, we can do that at MIT, too - just ask the Aga Khan, who only donated a couple million to the architecture department. He went to Harvard, too, you know. You guys might want to get together some time. You're a computer programmer. Ask around the office. Will the guys respect you more with a Harvard degree or an MIT degree? Plus, if you buy now, we'll throw in a Brass Rat, no charge. It's great for making people wince every time you pat them on the head. And we all know how much you enjoy making people wince.

Want a building named after you? No problem. We name all our buildings after people. Really. At least that's what I've heard. Maybe if you make a donation to the math department they can make your name a new integer or something. They wouldn't mind a new building either.

Even if Harvard does slap your name on the new building, will you really be advertising to the right group? Ask your marketing guys about this. They don't put up Windows95 billboards in Rwanda. If you're looking to find some extra programmers, you're not going to get them in that part of Cambridge. What you need to do is target your efforts to get the most from your advertising dollar. We're the folks who your recruiters are going to be after come this spring. Why not get a four-year head start on the competition by having the 6.001 computer lab renamed The Gates Scheme Center?

As the most prominent nerd on the planet (and I use that word only as high praise), you should also consider the social implications of your donation. Are you really promoting the kind of society where you and your children will be comfortable? You dropped out of Harvard because you didn't feel comfortable with the social scene. Why should generations of other programmers be exposed to the injustice you bore? Donate your money to MIT, where the nerd enjoys a status in campus society unheard of in the rest of the country. Ensure that generations of nerds will have the opportunity denied to you by the closed culture you experience.

Finally, I appeal to the world domination, total conquest side of your personality. Those peppy folks over at the Media Lab (who, incidentally, always love a little extra funding) are now developing computerized clothing. A little money might get you right in at the ground floor there. Just think - in a few decades you could have everyone's underwear running the latest version of "Windows for Wearing." If you thought users would grovel for a bug fix now, you haven't seen anything. By the way, Nick Negroponte says to tell you he really wants to roll around in your money pile. Careful though - he'll roll in anyone's money pile.

So if you haven't sent off your money to Harvard, give us a call and let's do lunch. If you have, we can start looking toward next year. With Building 20 slated for demolition, I see a prime spot for the William Gates Computer Laboratory opening up. From what I'm hearing, you're planning to spend about 30 to 40 million a year on charity in the near future. Believe me, nobody can spend that money like MIT.