The Church of Bill
A fine mist falls this afternoon on the Stanford University campus as excited computer nerds frolic up and down the freshly painted halls of their new building, swilling cans of Sprite and chowing down on pieces of turkey roll. But this is not just any new science building, erected in the West Quad to solve a congestion problem. This is a special, hallowed hall -- the William Gates Computer Science Building, a $38 million, five-story job, with $6 million tossed out by the boss himself. They'll never scrape the name off if it's carved in stone, which it is, above the west entrance.
A media confluence of video trucks and reporters in khakis swarms the area. The building's official dedication is sold out, but fortunately the ceremony is being simulcast to three nearby auditoriums, to allow curious faculty, students, and desperate columnists a window into this historic moment. The occasion is deliberately overlooked by both campus newspapers, except for an editorial in the Stanford Daily titled "Start us up, Bill" that reminds readers that other corporations donated heavily to the cause.
The rostrum is treated to predictable rhetoric by the president of the university and the chairman of the computer science department. Much is made about a 1928 map that thoughtfully set aside room for a science quad. The history is chronicled of the computer science department itself, a success story that leaves us spellbound and groping for words. The process of planning and designing buildings is outlined in fetishistic detail, and we are told the building is "too new to have its own special history and patina." The architect is pointed out. Eyes are watery with tradition and blissful happiness, until Bill takes the podium, and the kids set down their salads to listen to the richest man in the universe.
"It's interesting," says the pimpled philanthropist, "when I was thinking back on the gift, I realized I did make one small error in giving it, and that is that I sold Microsoft shares to raise the money [the crowd chuckles], and I should have waited a couple of years and I would have been able to give over 2 1/2 times as much." [Laughter.]
He adds, "I look forward to lots of collaboration between Microsoft and Stanford. There's certainly a bit of irony that in this age of low-cost communication, where we're going to be able to reach out across the world and share material, that it is still very, very important to have people all in one place, and the serendipity of knowing each other and brainstorming things really requires a facility like this."
But there are other ironies as well. Gates never even finished college himself, dropping out before completing his degree, as did Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (also a Stanford building namesake). Computer science is a relatively new discipline of higher education, a 30-year-old punk elbowing for room among classic areas of study like fine arts, humanities, mathematics, science, history, law, medicine, and, of course, physical education. And yet today, millions have been thrown at the new kid on campus rather than Russian languages, because, as we are constantly told these days, computers are our life. Also ironic is the fact that most students interested in computers won't ever benefit from Gates' magnanimous donation, because they'll have to sell their unborn children into slavery to afford Stanford tuition. Thus, the primary beneficiaries of America's richest businessman will be the J. Crewed sons and daughters of America's richest families west of the Mississippi. And all of them are giggling at the Forbes flat tax proposal.
Gates accepts an honorary key to the building and ends his speech, short and sweet -- something the pope might keep in mind. In fact, the religious implications of this occasion are difficult to ignore. As soft classical music wafts from speakers, the video monitors immediately pop on a promo image plugging the next event today: "The Future of Computer Science Technology, featuring William H. Gates and Raj Reddy." The words are superimposed over a reverential photo of tall pine trees, a bright sun blazing through them directly into the star-filter lens, like the opening sequence of the Hour of Faith Sunday TV program. Most of the audience stands up to leave. Strolling around Stanford's groves of academe, this computer spirituality seems more prevalent than ever. At the Tresidder coffee shop, laptops are in use, but nobody is drinking alcohol. A banner hangs from an administration building advertising the Website of the Baptist Student Ministries. And at the beautiful cruciform-style Stanford Memorial Church in the Main Quad, the similarities are downright shocking.
The stone-floor lobby of the Gates Building greets visitors with an engraved list of benefactors; the stone-floor church vestibule greets visitors with an engraved list of benefactors. The Gates walls are decorated with digital-enhanced photographs of humans and animals; the church walls feature stained-glass windows of humans and animals from the New Testament. The Gates Building is also festooned with artwork based on old computer keyboards; the church boasts three old keyboards, including an original Murray M. Harris pipe organ from 1901. Bill Gates is famed for his love of fast cars; the church's book of Prayer Requests to be included in next Sunday's 10 a.m. worship includes the cryptic: "O Lord, please let me have no more car accidents or I will lose my driver's license. Take care of me please, Amen."