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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Photo of SDSU alumnus Jim Brown ('67). Courtesy of the Brown Family. Photo of SDSU alumnus Jim Brown ('67). Courtesy of the Brown Family.

$6.25 Million Grant Establishes New AI Center at Fowler College of Business, Supports Student-Athletes

A James Silberrad Brown Foundation grant will expand AI research at SDSU and support the Aztecs Going Pro program for graduates.
By Tobin Vaughn

San Diego State University has announced a $6.25 million grant from the James Silberrad Brown Foundation through the San Diego Foundation that will provide $5 million for an artificial intelligence (AI) center at the Fowler College of Business and $1 million for the Aztecs Going Pro student-athlete career development program.

The foundation is named for the late Jim Brown, who graduated from SDSU in 1967 with a business management degree. Brown was a past member of the SDSU Alumni Board of Advisors and the 1991 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient from what was then the College of Business Administration.

Brown and his wife, Marilyn Creson Brown, have been major donors to the university for decades and are well known for their philanthropy throughout San Diego. The couple frequently attended SDSU sporting events together.

The grant was awarded based on recommendations from Marilyn Brown and Jim’s daughter, Kelly Brown, who consulted university leadership to determine funding areas that would best align with Jim’s interests. “We know these are choices he would make,” Marilyn Brown said. “It’s wonderful to be able to celebrate Jim, his life, and his commitment to San Diego State through the programs we know were meaningful to him.”

AI Center to be named for Brown

The  $5 million for AI designates $3.5 million to establish and operate the James Silberrad Brown Center for Artificial Intelligence. It also includes $1 million to create an endowment to support a center director, $250,000 to form a fellowship endowment, and $250,000 for an endowed scholarship. An additional $250,000 boosts SDSU’s capacity to generate philanthropic support for the university. 

The current Artificial Intelligence Lab where SDSU’s AI research, teaching, theory, and practice take place will now become a part of the new center. SDSU AI Lab Director and Associate Professor Aaron Elkins (’03), who founded the lab in 2018,  said the grant is the largest award ever bestowed upon the AI department. “It advances our department and division by at least 15 years,” Elkins said. 

Elkins said the funding will help make SDSU even more attractive to AI researchers and will accommodate department expansion from its usual 10 – 15 students to 20 or more. He said the new resources will help connect SDSU with a network of universities and other AI research institutions and industries that should open a wider range of possibilities for students.

“The education in AI and MIS (management information systems) at SDSU has always been top-notch, but to (recruit) those students who are really tops in their field, you need more than just the education,” said Elkins. “They want resources, connections, and collaborations. Now we can connect with some of these larger research centers as peers, which will allow us to do so much more.”

Elkins described the grant to his department as “a vote of confidence” by the Browns that SDSU researchers are value creators in the AI field. “It’s hard to state just how much gratitude we have to the Browns and the Brown family,” he said.

Aztecs Going Pro

The $1 million dedicated to the athletics department’s Aztecs Going Pro is the largest amount ever gifted to the program,  conceived just over a decade ago to provide skill-enhancing support for SDSU student-athletes. A large part of the award will be designated for a graduate assistant salary, but funds may also be used to support program needs.

For every year they compete, SDSU student-athletes take a one-hour-per-week, for-credit seminar class that serves as a life skills program. Director of Intercollegiate Athletics John David Wicker characterizes Aztecs Going Pro as a highly successful program that helps prepare most student-athletes who will pursue post-graduation careers outside of professional sports.

“This grant helps validate that Aztecs Going Pro is the type of program that resonates with people like Jim and Marilyn Brown who care about San Diego State Athletics, but who also care about the individual,” Wicker said. “They see the value of what we do and their contributions allow us to provide better programming and more support for our student-athletes.”

Wicker described the grant as “very meaningful” to the Aztecs Going Pro program. He called Jim Brown “a great person who was always engaged in the community.”

Thinking About the Future

Marilyn Brown describes her late husband as someone who was interested in the world. The grant from the foundation named for him reflects that, she said, noting that support for the AI center is a choice he would have made himself. In 2019, the Browns contributed $50,000 to create the AI Lab Program Endowment. 

“That’s really Jim,” she said of the grant’s intent. “It’s forward-looking, it’s thinking about the future, it’s taking a program that could really be special and making it better.”
Jim Brown had always valued his association with SDSU, Marilyn Brown said, and maintained several close relationships with people throughout the university. He always wanted to stay in touch.

“You don’t necessarily give funding to places, you give it to people, and over the years Jim knew the San Diego State people. It was about people, and it was about what had been done for him and what he felt he had received from the university, and he wanted to give something back.”

SDSU will host a naming ceremony on February 27, 2023, for the new James Silberrad Brown Center for Artificial Intelligence.