Wash U renaming engineering school after Square co-founder Jim McKelvey

After a big gift from one of its most famous graduates, Washington University’s engineering school will have a new name soon: the James McKelvey School of Engineering.

The donation will fund more engineering scholarships, faculty recruitment and give the school an unconstrained endowment to invest in future needs as research and technology evolves. The amount of the donation was undisclosed.

Jim McKelvey, the St. Louis native who co-founded mobile payment company Square and local job-training nonprofit LaunchCode, said he first enrolled in Washington University in 1983 as an economics student. He still graduated with an economics degree, but along the way he found computer science at the engineering school, which he said “changed my life.” He earned that degree, too, authoring two computer programming textbooks while still a student.

Between more scholarships and the hiring of faculty at the intersection of engineering and other disciplines, he hopes other students can discover engineering the same way he did.

“My wish is that someone who doesn’t know they want to be an engineer just comes into this school and finds out,” McKelvey said.

Instead of just having an engineering school on the east end of campus, “we have to weave engineering into the fabric of the university,” engineering school Dean Aaron Bobick said.

The engineering school is already collaborating with researchers in political science, economics and finance, Bobick said. He hopes to use the McKelvey donation to hire more faculty at the intersection of those disciplines.

“Being able to pursue faculty at those boundaries is a tremendous advantage,” Bobick said.

In addition to dedicated pools for scholarships and faculty retention, McKelvey said he wanted the school to have an unconstrained pool of money to invest as needs and circumstances change.

“I realized having resources in the hands of an institution like Washington University was a very, very good bet,” McKelvey said.

While the engineering school currently has research strengths in nanoparticle technology, materials research, cybersecurity, machine learning and bioengineering, Bobick said the unconstrained gift would allow the university to adapt to unknown change.

“Opportunities arise because of the changing dynamics and research and needs of society,” he said.

It’s McKelvey’s second major gift to the university in just more than two years. In late 2016, he donated $15 million for the naming rights to a new engineering building under construction and set to open in 2020 near the intersection of Skinker Boulevard and Forest Park Parkway.

James M. McKelvey Sr. Hall, will be named after the younger McKelvey’s father, who was dean of the engineering school for 27 years before retiring in 1996. It will house the Department of Computer Science & Engineering.

As part of the major campus renovations underway along Skinker Boulevard, the engineering school is also building the new Henry A. and Elvira H. Jubel Hall, which is expected to open this year and will house the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science.

McKelvey’s StarLake Holdings recently purchased the Post-Dispatch building downtown and leases it to the newspaper.

McKelvey has seen the value of San Francisco-based Square, which he co-founded with fellow St. Louis native and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, more than double in the last year. Since Square’s initial public offering in 2015, its share price rose from about $10 to over $71.35 a share as of Thursday’s closing price.

McKelvey has been selling millions of shares of stock over the last year, reducing his holdings from about 20.2 million shares at the end of March 2018 to some 15.6 million shares as of the beginning of this month, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.