Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 16, 2024

Alum gifts $75 million to philosophy department

By JAMES SCHARF | February 1, 2018


Hopkins received the largest ever donation to a philosophy department.

Hopkins alum William H. Miller donated $75 million to the University’s philosophy department in January. The donation, the largest ever to a university philosophy program, made national headlines, and the department will now bear the name: William H. Miller Department of Philosophy.

Miller, an investor noted for successfully beating the market for 15 years, worked on a Ph.D. in philosophy from Hopkins but left to pursue money management before completing his dissertation. He asserts that philosophy helped him with investment strategies.

Richard Bett, professor and chair of the philosophy department, said that he expects to use the gift to grow the department into one that rivals those of  the University’s peer institutions.

“We’ve always suffered from our small size,” Bett said. “With that number of new positions, we’ll be at the same number as the leading departments.”

Plans on how to allocate the donation have not been finalized, and it is unclear how the money or faculty will be divided between the graduate and undergraduate programs.

Bett said that most of the donation is going to be set aside to endow new positions. The money will also go to graduate student funding, post-doctoral fellowships and undergraduate programs and courses.

Bett said that the department will increase from 13 faculty members to 22 over the next 10 years. The department will also seek to hire additional postdocs.

The new faculty members will allow the department to significantly increase the number of courses offered, many in areas that are not currently taught.

Bett’s personal goal is to find a faculty member who could teach Eastern Philosophy. Currently, the department only works with Western philosophy.

“I’ve thought for a long time, it’d be great to hire someone who does Chinese philosophy, and I know the East Asian studies program would appreciate that,” he said. “With the size we are

now, it never seemed like it was a top priority.”

He feels that there would be a lot of student interest in Eastern Philosophy.

“At the freshman open house every year, someone almost always asks, do you do non-Western philosophy? And up until now we’ve had to say no,” Bett said.

Bett believes that an increase in the amount of faculty will alleviate what he terms “selective excellence” — competency in a few areas but inadequacy in others.

“In philosophy, selective excellence is not a successful thing. The assumption is everywhere. You really have to compound baseline understanding across a number of fields in order to cover any subject at all,” he said.

Bett noted that in philosophy, the department’s quality and capacity for critical thinking depends on large-scale academic debate, which he believes is constrained by the relatively low number of faculty.

He noted the importance of this donation for the humanities in general at Hopkins, which may lead to growth in other humanities departments because new hires may come with secondary appointments.

“It’s a big sort of shot in the arm for someone to give this amount of money to any humanities field,” Bett said.

In an email to The News-Letter, Miller said that he originally intended to incorporate the donation into his will. However, University President Ronald J. Daniels persuaded him to give the donation during his lifetime.

“Daniels convinced me that doing it now would be much more rewarding, as I could have some involvement in the process and see the donation’s impact,” Miller wrote.

Miller, who will not be dictating the money’s allocation, also explained that the donation was part of what he called a “broader estate-planning exercise.”

“It was time for me to begin what museums call ‘deaccessioning’ — getting rid of stuff instead of accumulating more,” he wrote.

Miller wrote that his donation is aimed at addressing a lack of funding in the humanities today. He believes that higher education is focusing more heavily on STEM because there is a widespread perception that liberal arts have little value.

“Many schools are cutting back their support for departments such as English and Philosophy. I hope this gift encourages additional support for these underfunded but critically important areas,” Miller wrote.

He believes that the humanities do not need to necessarily be practical to be worth studying.

“I agree with the literary critic and former Hopkins professor Stanley Fish, who, when asked what the humanities were good for, replied that they were good for nothing. He said they were good in and of themselves and needed no further rationale,” Miller wrote.

Like Bett, Miller hopes the department will turn to Eastern philosophy, noting that it was neglected in most Western philosophy departments despite its influence on thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau.

Miller also hopes the department will develop offerings in American philosophy, the philosophy of physics and the philosophy of space and time.

Sophomore Adam Katwan, a philosophy major, would like to see the philosophy department integrate new faculty members who can specialize in different styles of Western philosophy that are more prominent in other countries.

“There’s another strand of philosophical thought that was developed in France and Germany that tends to be neglected in American departments,” Katwan said.

He also supported the introduction of Eastern philosophy in the department. Likewise, senior and philosophy major Jared Mayer hopes that the department will pay more attention to Eastern philosophy, as well as the philosophy of law.

Mayer also looks forward to the department potentially bringing in another postdoc. He referred to the previous philosophy postdoc, Stephen Ogden.

Senior and philosophy major Jack Valenti feels that the donation validates students who major in philosophy.

“The donation destroys the stereotype that you can’t do anything with a philosophy major and that it isn’t helpful at all,” Valenti said.

Valenti pointed out that philosophy majors and math majors, on average, achieve the highest LSAT and GRE scores. He refuted the notion that students majoring in philosophy are unemployable.

Mayer is confident that the philosophy department has already prepared him well for life.

“I have full faith that being able to ask the right questions and peer into the assumptions that people make are [skills that are] just universally helpful and widely applicable,” Mayer said.

Katwan, who wants to pursue a career in academia, emphasized philosophy’s ability to enrich the lives of those who study it.

“What philosophy gives me is a sense of the strangeness and meaningfulness of life,” Katwan said.

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