Siebel intends donations to 'make change happen'

URBANA — "Make change happen."

That's the philanthropy philosophy adopted by billionaire alumnus Tom Siebel, who has donated millions to the University of Illinois and funded a variety of initiatives, from stem cell research to methamphetamine prevention.

One of the more noticeable changes he helped create in recent years on campus was a $32 million donation to help build the Siebel Center for Computer Science.

Siebel and the 225,000-square-foot brick, slate, copper and glass building were feted Thursday as part of a celebration marking the building's 10th anniversary and the department's 50th. Siebel spoke before about 100 faculty, staff and students and answered questions from the audience. He also was to attend the investiture of William Gropp as the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in Computer Science.

"We're in the business of creating organizations that make change happen," Siebel said when asked about his approach toward philanthropy. In addition to the donation for the computer science building in 2007, he and his wife have pledged $100 million to the UI.

Siebel said he is critical of philanthropy models that involve organizations annually awarding hundreds of grants of about $20,000 each because "it's a dissipation of resources."

Siebel started the Siebel Scholars program in 1999. It supports graduate students studying computer science, bioengineering and business in the country's top universities.

"These are 870 of maybe the smartest people in world," he said, and they hold conferences regularly on a variety of big issues. "I think we make change happen," he said.

One of the projects the scholars helped launch is the Meth Project, which he described as a "large-scale exercise in the prevention in methamphetamine."

The organization grew to have an annual budget of $40 million and a presence in eight different states.

Another organization, the Siebel Stem Cell Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, funds a variety of stem cell research with the goal of treating and curing diseases like breast cancer and lymphoma.

One idea currently in the "formative" stage is a Siebel Energy Institute, which he said will inspire research in machine learning and algorithm development as it relates to power generation delivery. The research will be applied to increase safety and reliability.

"We don't do much and we don't do it very often, but when we do it we do it pretty substantially," he said.

Siebel earned three degrees from the UI: a bachelor's degree in history, a master's degree in business administration and another master's in computer science. On Thursday, he spoke about his early years on campus, first as a history scholar, then business and eventually moving to computer science. Instrumental to his moving into computer science was his reading of an anthology on the industrial revolution that he purchased in the student union bookstore.

An essay by Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell predicted there would be "a fundamental change in the structure of the global economy on the scale of the industrial revolution," and that information technology would change the way people do business, communicate and entertain themselves.

"I found it inspiring. This is the game I want to play," he said.

Siebel would go on to become an executive at Oracle Corp. He later founded and was chairman and chief executive officer of Siebel Systems, an international application software company.

Siebel ranks No. 914 on Forbes' "The World's Billionaires" list; according to the publication, he's worth $2 billion.

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