Students question impact of Philosophy donation

By MICHAEL TRAUTMANN RODRIGUEZ | September 19, 2019

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EDA INCEKARA/PHOTOGRAPHY EDITOR Students expressed a desire for course offerings in Eastern philosophy.

In January 2018, Hopkins alum William H. Miller donated $75 million to the University’s Department of Philosophy. Professor Richard Bett, then department chair, told The News-Letter that most of the donation — the largest ever to a university Philosophy program — was intended to endow new positions. This would allow the department to expand its course offerings into areas that are not currently covered. Bett had also stated that his personal goal was to find a faculty member who could teach Eastern philosophy. 

Almost two years later, the department has hired two faculty members and plans to hire seven more. Junior Philosophy major Phillip Yoon said that although he is pleased with the new hires, he wishes the department would offer courses in Eastern philosophy. Currently the department still only teaches Western philosophy.

“East Asian philosophy is really important these days, especially because people have this preconceived notion that philosophers are all white,” Yoon said. “A lot of Asians are actually kind of intimidated and also discouraged by the fact that a lot of philosophers are white — that they won’t be accepted. I also had that thought at first because I’m Asian.”

According to Yoon, many American philosophy departments disregard East Asian thinkers like Confucius and Mencius. Yoon also expressed his desire for more transparency around how the money was being distributed. 

Beverly Wendland, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS), clarified how the funds would be distributed in an email to The News-Letter. She stated that the funds would be allocated by her office in consultation with the department and with University leadership.

“This gift is a commitment that is being paid over several years,” she wrote. “While we do not disclose the terms of donor commitments, rest assured the funds are being provided at a pace that fuels our very aggressive aspirations for the Department.”

Philosophy Department Chair Steven Gross clarified that most of the donation will be set aside to endow new positions. The money will also go to post-doctoral fellowships and graduate and undergraduate programming. 

Miller had hoped for the department to incorporate Eastern philosophy into its curriculum. Gross said that this remains one of the department’s many goals, though no new faculty members with specialty in that area have been hired yet.

“When we first started formulating ideas, and we continue to do so, we actually had a variety of things that we wanted,” he said. “It just so happens that our first two hires weren’t in those areas, but we have roughly seven more to go. And some of the people that we’ve been looking at... would certainly contribute to that.”

The two newly hired professors, Ian Phillips and Hanna Pickard, joined the University as Bloomberg Distinguished Professors this summer. 

In addition to being Philosophy professors, Phillips and Pickard have secondary appointments in Psychological and Brain Sciences and Bioethics, respectively. 

Gross explained that Phillips’ and Pickard’s hiring will allow the department to connect with other parts of the University.

Senior Adam Katwan, a Philosophy major, said that he would like to see the department hire faculty members that focus on East Asian philosophy, along with other styles of Western philosophy that he feels the American universities tend to neglect. 

Katwan is president of Prometheus, an undergraduate philosophy club and journal published by Hopkins students.

“We don’t currently have somebody who does Eastern philosophy as a specialization. We don’t have anybody who does mid-to-late 19th- and 20th-century Continental European philosophy as a specialization,” he said. “Those are both important things for philosophy departments to cover.”

Yoon echoed Katwan’s sentiments, stressing that philosophy courses allow students to improve their communication and analytical skills.

In addition, Yoon pointed out the difficulty of finding information about the department’s plans to distribute the $75 million.

“There is no official documentation or news that the Philosophy Department publishes about how they’re going to use the money,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as transparent as I want them to be, but that can be improved.”

When asked whether the department had a mechanism to incorporate student input into the management of the money, Gross suggested that students reach out to their director of undergraduate or graduate studies. 

“If undergraduates have ideas or there are things they would like to let us know, we would be very interested in that,” he said.

Katwan highlighted the importance of hiring faculty members from a variety of specialties.

“Philosophy is very broad field; it’s very heterogeneous,” he said. “What makes a really good philosophy department is pluralism: people who draw on a variety of different traditions in their philosophical work.”

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