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An $8 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation will create student scholarships and a faculty endowment supporting John Brown University's new computer-science and data-analytics programs.

"We are excited to expand our academic programs in these critically needed professions," Chip Pollard, the university's president, said in a statement. "This new endowed scholarship will help keep JBU affordable for students seeking to pursue data analytics and computer science in the context of a rigorous Christian comprehensive education."

The foundation run by the family of Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton has given hundreds of millions to support higher education in Arkansas. Just last week, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville announced a $194.7 million gift from the foundation.

The latest gift announced Wednesday includes $6 million for an endowed scholarship to be awarded to John Brown students majoring in computer science or data analytics. Both programs will enroll their first students this fall.

Julie Gumm, a John Brown University spokeswoman, said the first scholarship awards will be given out in fall 2021. The amounts will vary based on student need, she said.

The other portion of the gift, $2 million, establishes an endowed chair in data analytics, providing support for faculty members at the Siloam Springs campus.

Linda Vytlacil, former vice president for data science and global data and analytics platforms at Walmart Labs, is the inaugural data analytics chair holder, the university announced.

The data-analytics program is a part of the university's Soderquist College of Business.

Companies gather large sets of data from consumers, and data-analytics students will be trained in ways to "basically break that down into some kind of actionable insight," said Ryan Ladner, dean of the business college.

Students will also be taught how to communicate and present information clearly so a manager or supervisor can use it, Ladner said.

"We want to balance the hard skills and soft skills," Ladner said.

Recruiting faculty members in a field that's in high demand will remain a challenge, but having an endowment in place "helps the conversation" when talking about the university to potential hires, Ladner said.

Gumm said that among 354 degrees awarded in the university's traditional undergraduate programs in 2019-20, 41, or 12%, were in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines.

"My hope is that we see an increase," said Ted Song, chairman of the engineering, computer science, and cybersecurity departments at the university. "But also at the same time, it's not just for STEM students."

Song said the university's students in education and business, for example, will be able to gain important skills by taking computer-science courses. He referred to statewide efforts under Gov. Asa Hutchinson to have students gain such skills.

Having knowledge of computer coding "will help anyone," Song said.


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