Colby College, Waterville Maine

$30-Million Gift Positions Students to Address Pressing Issues Through AI

March 2021

By Ramona du Houx

Colby College today announced in January that it has received a $30-million gift to establish the first cross-disciplinary institute for artificial intelligence (AI) at a liberal arts college.

Made possible by the tremendous generosity of the Davis family and trustee of its charitable foundation Andrew Davis ’85, LL.D. ’15, the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence will provide new pathways for talented students and faculty to research, create, and apply AI and machine learning (ML) across disciplines while setting a precedent for how liberal arts colleges can shape the future of AI.

“Becoming a prominent center for the teaching and research of artificial intelligence and machine learning allows Colby’s faculty and students to reimagine a liberal arts education for this century and beyond. Importantly, it will ensure that the next generation of leaders will have rich technical expertise, but they will not simply be technocrats. These Colby graduates will be deeply educated in the liberal arts with the powers of discernment to shape AI for the greater good,” said President David A. Greene. “While my gratitude to Andrew and his family is unbounded, I know the greatest thanks that Andrew can receive is to see the Davis Institute flourish and for it to forever change the life trajectory of our students and to better our world in substantive and lasting ways. That’s our commitment to my friend Andrew, who challenges us to reach higher, imagine more, and never settle when it comes to Colby’s relevance and impact.”

The Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which will open this fall following a national search for a founding director, will prepare Colby students for a future where AI is transforming a growing array of industries, careers, and modes of discovery, creativity, and scholarship. Colby students will become and help lead the next generation of programmers and designers who will shape the capacity and influence of AI. They will also be prepared to engage with and build upon that capability through a wide range of applications and to influence policy decisions regarding the social and ethical implications of AI and its uses for the common good.

“Addressing the complex questions surrounding AI requires a holistic analysis and response that can only come from a broad liberal arts perspective,” said Andrew Davis. “With its distinctive tradition of interdisciplinary scholarship, exceptional expertise in the sciences, and strong focus on engaging with the world, Colby is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in preparing students for this incredibly important work, and we’re very pleased to support this important initiative.”

A Novel Approach

Colby’s model allows for AI to become part of the curriculum in nearly all disciplines. The Davis Institute will support the hiring of an initial cohort of six new faculty experts in artificial intelligence in different disciplines, ranging from computer science and genomics to sociology and English literature.

The newly recruited faculty members will join a larger community of scholars at Colby currently using AI in their research and teaching, and the Institute-affiliated faculty will continue to grow over time. The Institute will also provide funding to support Colby faculty interested in exploring new ways to incorporate AI tools and methodologies into their teaching and research or for designing new courses to include meaningful learning opportunities with AI.

“The Davis Institute will enable our faculty to transform their scholarship and teaching,” said Margaret McFadden, provost and dean of faculty at Colby. “AI is driving very dramatic shifts in virtually every area of inquiry. These shifts will have profound consequences for quantitative research and teaching across the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities and ultimately offer new routes to discovery. Our educational mission must include preparing students for a future in which AI is ubiquitous, and this Institute will make that possible in a way that no other liberal arts college can do.”

While engineering and technical universities have invested recently in academic AI programs, the reach of AI and ML into nearly all aspects of society demands a broad approach to the subject matter that is tailor-made for the liberal arts. The future leaders of this field will be best served if they have the training to think critically about a range of issues, an appreciation of history, culture, and societies to make judicious choices about the use and impact of AI, and a humanistic lens from which to ensure that AI will be both developed and used to high ethical standards.

The Hathaway Center in Waterville, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

The Davis Institute will build upon existing partnerships and develop new relationships with leading organizations and institutions to facilitate significant faculty and student research using rich datasets with real-world consequences and to provide students with broad-ranging opportunities for internships. It will also create a summer program for visiting faculty and students to work on AI projects and to develop courses and research projects that can be shared at their home institutions. In these ways, the Davis Institute will become a national center for training faculty and students in the use of AI and the creation of new systems and capabilities.