Special Education

Internet Tycoon Gives $250 Million For Cognitive-Disabilities Project

By Catherine Gewertz — January 24, 2001 2 min read
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A California couple has promised to donate $250 million to the University of Colorado to create a center for research on technological advances that will help people with cognitive disabilities.

William T. Coleman III and his wife, Claudia Coleman, in Denver to make the announcement last week, said their gift has its roots in a 1983 inspiration: watching their then-6-year-old niece, who has both mental and physical disabilities, learn and grow by using a computer they gave her. Mr. Coleman, who was asked to speak at the university in 1999, became interested in its research in cognitive science. That visit kicked off donation discussions.

Mr. Coleman, the founder and chairman of BEA Systems, which builds Internet business platforms, has said that ever since he founded his San Jose-based company in 1995, he has wanted to use the fruits of his business success to make a difference in an area he cares deeply about.

“I passionately believe that we as a society have the intelligence and the responsibility to develop technologies that will expand the ability of those with cognitive disabilities to learn, to understand, and to communicate,” Mr. Coleman said in a prepared statement.

The Colemans, courtesy of the University of Colorado.

The Colemans’ donation—to be paid over five years—is the largest ever to a public university, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which tracks large gifts to colleges and universities.

Elizabeth Hoffman, the president of the University of Colorado system, said the endowment would establish the University of Colorado Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities. In an interview, she said she envisioned it as an international hub of development of “adaptive, assistive technologies.” Ms. Hoffman has pledged to raise additional money for the project in an attempt to match the gift.

‘Perfect Timing’

An estimated 20 million people in the United States have cognitive disabilities, ranging from setbacks caused by a stroke to autism, Down syndrome, mental retardation, and Alzheimer’s disease. The timing for the institute is perfect, Ms. Hoffman said, because increasing numbers of people will struggle with such disabilities as the baby boom generation ages over the next two decades.

“We’re going to need more and more assistive technologies to help people communicate, reason, and remember,” she said. “Just imagine having Alzheimer’s and being afraid to go anywhere because you get lost and don’t recognize people. Then imagine that person being able to carry a small, hand- held device that could help guide them from place to place and even help them recognize friends when they meet them. That could change their lives.”

The institute will begin its work as a partnership with two of the university’s four campuses: its Boulder location and its Health Sciences Center in Denver. Eventually, its work will involve an interdisciplinary group of experts from all four campuses.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Internet Tycoon Gives $250 Million For Cognitive-Disabilities Project

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