Tech firms invent a university

Confronted by a world-wide shortage of expert software designers and disappointed with the output of graduates from traditional universities, leading high-tech companies decided to take matters into their own hands. The controversial result: A new, for-profit school called Northface University.

Northface aims to graduate legions of software developers with more useful skills than established colleges can provide–in barely half the time. In the process, the founders and backers of Northface University may be developing a whole new category in higher education: the so-called “destination school.”

Northface’s strategy is to pare away liberal arts and focus on a tech-heavy curriculum. The promised result is ready-to-work software designers who won’t cost companies much to train.

Administrators elsewhere, however, question whether such a specific focus will deny Northface students more rounded skills needed for success.

“It sounds like an institution that has identified a need, but will come out with programmers instead of people really trained to think critically,” said Eric Grimson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) administrator. Not surprisingly, MIT–which now must compete with Northface for computer-science students–is skeptical of the venture.

Northface charges $60,000 tuition for an intensive, 28-month bachelor’s degree in computer science. The school is backed by IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., and Unisys Corp., which have donated software, development tools, and training regimens.

The school’s prime sponsor is IBM, which, like the other sponsors, expects to hire some grads. IBM wants to counter Microsoft’s market dominance and educate more grads in IBM-written applications for Linux and other open-source systems. (See related story, page 18.)

“I’m jazzed about the Northface program,” said IBM research fellow Grady Booch, a member of the school’s advisory board. “Northface is producing a far better match for the skill sets IBM needs.”

The school, run by a pair of former

venture capital executives and a former technology chief at several companies, is accredited by an organization that certifies trade schools, making its students eligible for federal loans.

But university chairman H. Scott McKinley, a former Asia managing director for Chase Capital Partners, rejects all comparisons to trade schools, saying he has plans to offer a master’s degree in

business administration with a technology bent.

The school opened in January and sits in a gleaming new office park on Utah’s Jordan River, south of Salt Lake City. It has enrolled 130 students, with 90 more coming next quarter. Northface University is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools to award bachelor and masters degrees.

The business plan calls for 1,200 graduates a year by 2007–five times MIT’s 225 graduates in computer-related fields each year, Northface executives say.

That might seem ambitious, given declining computer-science enrollments. But McKinley says he doesn’t need to achieve that figure for Northface to break even. He expects Northface to turn a profit within a year.

Great Hill Partners, a Boston investment firm, is pledging $15 million for the venture. Matthew Vettel, a principal at the firm, calls Northface a “destination school” for people certain of their career.

“It’s difficult to build an education brand, but when you have a skilled faculty and relevant curriculum, we think the marketplace will support the brand,” Vettel said. The faculty includes Terry Halpin, a former head of database modeling for Microsoft, and Tony Morgan, a Cambridge-educated former executive at Electronic Data Systems Corp. and Unisys.

Haym Hirsh, chairman of the computer science department at Rutgers University, is not a Northface believer. He doesn’t think its intensive focus can inspire the kind of “out-of-box” thinking that goes with a broader education.

Hirsh said he wouldn’t recommend Northface for teenagers graduating from high school.

“It’s all spin for themselves to put themselves on the level of an MIT,” he said. “But I think there is a legitimate need for what they’re doing”–for returning students or career changers.

At MIT, computer science students also take biology, calculus, physics, chemistry, and humanities.

“We believe our students need to have a perspective on the world,” MIT’s Grimson said. “You can’t just go hacking in your room.”

See these related links:

Northface University

Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools

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