Press Room




Bill Gates - Come Together Washington

October 15, 2004
At the launch of the University of Washington’s capital campaign, Bill Gates celebrates the contributions the school has made to the Pacific Northwest and the world.

It's great to be here to celebrate the future of the University of Washington, which has been finding new ways to make our lives better for nearly 150 years.

I’m also happy to be here because for the last 30 years I’ve wanted to set the record straight. In the early 1970s when I was still in high school, my sister Kristi, who was in student government here at the UW, helped me get a $500 contract to help computerize class enrollment here.

It pains me to say that the campus newspaper accused us of nepotism. In spite of what you might have read in The Daily, I was qualified for that job! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. And I’m keeping the $500.

Now, some people will see some irony in my support of the UW and point out that I never graduated from college. My response is: “what do you mean ‘never’?” When I left college, I told my Dad I was taking a leave of absence. I’m sticking to that story, too.

We’re all here today because the UW has a big place in our lives, and it will play a big part in our future. It can be a very bright future – if we have as much commitment to the UW as its earliest supporters did.

One hundred and fifty-three years ago, the city of Seattle was a mix of water, mountains, trees, mud, and twenty-two people getting off a boat cursing the weather. None of those early settlers came here for what Seattle was; they came here for what it could be.

Arthur Denny believed his future was tied to the future of this place, so he set out to build a city in the wilderness. He believed the fastest way to build the city was to get the territorial capital placed in Seattle. But those plans were interrupted by a Methodist Minister named Daniel Bagley, who famously told Denny: “Nonsense … A University is a heap better than a Capital.”

Now I’ve always believed that if you’re not being laughed at for at least one of your ideas, you’re probably not being creative enough – and a University here in Seattle in the 1860s was one laughable idea. There just wasn’t any need. But they didn’t mind. The founders went about building a University in a town of 200 people – none of whom were ready for higher learning. This is what you call ‘being ahead of your time.’
What difference has it made? Look in any direction! Hardly a hundred and fifty years after its founding, Seattle rivals the great cities of the world in prosperity and vitality and quality of life. And it could not have happened without the University of Washington. The UW has developed our homegrown gifts, become a magnet for talent, and has done a phenomenal job of serving the community.

First of all, the UW has always worked to make a college education accessible to as many people as possible. If we’re going to make the most of our future, we need to help our young people make it through college - by preparing them for it and helping them pay for it. When the UW gives young people the tools they need to achieve their dreams, it not only makes their lives better; it makes all our lives better – by promoting greater equity and prosperity.

The UW improves our lives in very direct ways as well. Some of you earned your degrees here. Some of you study here, teach here, or work here. Some of you have received heroic health care at the UW Medical Center. But if all we know about the UW is the difference it makes for our families, our city, and our state, we don’t know the half of it. This university has helped change the world.

It was a UW graduate who developed the technique for smallpox vaccination that eradicated the disease. A UW professor engineered a vaccine for Hepatitis B that is saving millions of lives. A team of UW researchers identified fetal alcohol syndrome and developed kidney dialysis. UW graduates pioneered the design of jet planes and spacecraft. A team of UW professors developed the first ultrasound instrument that could detect a fetal heartbeat.

The UW is home to three of the scientists responsible for mapping the human genome. The UW is also home to Dr. Linda Buck, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine two weeks ago. She was born in Seattle, earned degrees at the UW, and is a professor here now. This is world-class hometown talent.

The UW receives more funding from federal research grants than any other public university in America. It’s the second leading recipient of funding from the National Institutes of Health.

But by serving the world, the UW is also serving this community. You simply can’t have that kind of intellectual firepower in one place without creating a vibrant community around you. That’s another way the UW continues to nourish our city and state.

But the most important point to remember here, is that energy can’t flow forever in one direction. The UW can’t keep sustaining us unless we keep supporting the UW.

The UW’s founders understood that. And so have many people since, including Bill Boeing. In 1906, Mr. Boeing took his first flight, decided he could build a better airplane, and then did it.

We all know that side of the story, but here’s another side: Boeing knew his new company needed brainpower. So he bought a wind tunnel for the UW that allowed them to start teaching aeronautics, and he also hired two UW engineering students, both of whom went on to become Presidents at Boeing.

Bill Boeing was able to change the world because he had the resources of the UW. And he enjoyed the resources of the UW because he invested in the UW.

From aerospace to computer technology; from bio-technology to Internet commerce to really great coffee – we have become the hometown of people who look at old scenes and see new possibilities. The UW has helped realize those possibilities. Neither Seattle nor the UW could be what it is today without the other – and as we look to the future, neither will prosper unless both are strong.

I will confess that when it comes to the University of Washington – I am not a neutral observer. This University has shaped my life in very positive ways.  

The UW was responsible for a lot of my early training on computers. When I was about thirteen years old and still in junior high school, four UW faculty members created the Computer Center Corporation (known as "C-Cubed") on Roosevelt Way. The center had one of the first commercially available, time-sharing PDP-10 computers in the nation, and the owners gave Paul Allen and me free computer time to find flaws in the system.

Once we went a bit too far in finding flaws in the system, and we got banned for a summer. I was obedient about it, but Paul wasn’t. He worked his way onto a terminal in the electrical engineering department, and spent the summer using a professor’s free account at C-cubed. He told me about it when the summer was over – then we both spent our time there.

When C-Cubed closed a few years later, Paul and I were still in high school, and were desperate for new computer opportunities. Paul was more aggressive than I was.

One day he just walked into the computer center, sat down and starting using the computers. After a while, a professor asked him if he was a student, and Paul had to say ‘no.’ But the professor let him stay because Paul was so helpful answering students’ questions. Soon Paul brought me in under the same plan.

I also found that the old Physics building at the UW had a PDP-10 computer that was busy about 20 hours a day analyzing photos of particle interactions. I felt a duty to do something about those remaining four hours.

I learned that if I waited till my parents were asleep, snuck out of the house in the middle of the night, and made it to the Physics building by 3 a.m., a student would let me in, and I could have a PDP-10 all to myself for a few hours. That was a fantastic thing. Though my mom did keep asking me why I couldn’t get up on time for school like my sisters did.

My life has taken the course it has because Paul and I were there at the right moment to start the world’s first microcomputer software company. Without the computer experience we gained at the UW, we might not have been ready when the time came. And the phenomenal thing is – we weren’t students at the UW. We benefited because the UW’s mission is to serve the community, and we were members of the community.

Of course, the UW did more than give me computer experience – it has made crucial contributions to Microsoft and to the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

When Microsoft was first getting some traction, Paul and I had to decide where we wanted to live and work. Many people in our position would have faced a choice: Either go to a world-class city with a top research university that was a magnet for talent – or go home. Thanks to the UW, we were able to do both.

It was a smart move. Microsoft has had a very beneficial collaboration with the UW – with Microsoft employees both taking courses and offering courses at the Computer Science Department. Right now we have a very talented senior researcher at Microsoft by the name of David Salesin who is also a professor at the UW. So this relationship is very beneficial to both of us.

The UW has also become a huge asset for our foundation. When Melinda and I started our philanthropy, we thought hard about how it could do the greatest good for the largest number.

We decided to focus our efforts on education, public access to the Internet, helping at-risk families here in the Pacific Northwest, and improving global health – with an emphasis on medical research. These areas turn out to be the focus of so much of what the UW is doing – and doing with global impact.

All our foundation program areas have a partner in the UW. One of our greatest passions is the global fight against AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria – diseases that kill millions of people every year. Some of the most important research on these diseases is going on here at the UW.

Locally, our foundation is working on the “Sound Families Initiative” – a program to help families in need find permanent homes. A team from the UW has been helping us from the very beginning.

And the UW has been an indispensable partner in evaluation. For example, they have played a huge role in evaluating our program to put computers in public libraries across America – helping us track who’s using them, what for, and with what results.

At the foundation, we try a lot of different approaches. We need to know right away if an idea fails. In business, the market tells you when you’ve failed. In science, your instruments tell you. In philanthropy, no one tells you; everyone wants to be your friend. We rely on the UW to get the blunt truth.

Finally, I have to acknowledge how much the UW has meant to my family. Two of my grandparents came to school here. My older sister went to school here. My parents did both their undergraduate and graduate work here. And as some of you know, my mom and dad met here.

They knew each other slightly when my mom decided to run for student body secretary. My Dad was a big man on campus – he was six foot seven even then. So, of course, everyone looked up to him. When my mom asked for his support, he actually told her that he was backing another candidate. I guess he was playing hard to get.

Sometimes risky strategies get results.

Even today, he won’t say who he voted for – but I know he eventually made the right choice.

We have a lot of family memories here at the UW. But for me – supporting the UW is more than a sentimental decision; it’s a strategic decision. The quality of our future depends on the quality of our university. If the early settlers could see that more than a century ago, we ought to be able to see it today.

We can have a dazzling future here in Seattle and in Washington. We have opportunities to make dramatic improvements in people’s lives – in health, education, and economic advances. But nothing is guaranteed.

When you look to the future, the range between the best-case and worst-case scenarios is huge. If we’re going to end up on the positive end of what’s possible, we need to go right at the problems that overwhelm the rest of the world – and solve them. To do this, we need two things: We need new medical and technological discoveries. And we need new ways to distribute the breakthroughs so they reach people who need them.

It is difficult to do these two things without a university – and I don’t see how we’re going to do them here in our city and state without supporting this university.

The University of Washington plays a vital role in curing disease, educating our youth, building our economy, and fighting poverty. And we play a vital role in the UW. We are part of something huge. Let’s make the most of it. Let’s support the UW – and we’ll create the future too. Thank you.


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