Jan 26, 2018

$75 Million To Philosophy (For The Elite)

One of John Hopkins University alumni, Bill Miller - who did really study philosophy there in what appears to be a more or less serious way - made a massive donation earmarked specifically to support the Philosophy Department at that institution.  $75 million dollars.  That is the sort of money that can be "life-changing" not just for a person, but for an institution.

Here are a few representative pieces about Miller's gift, discussing his reasons for the donation.
My first reaction upon reading that piece was a mixture of two main sentiments.  That's awesome!  And also: That's too bad. . .

That an alumnus who studied philosophy would make that level of a donation on behalf of the discipline philosophy is awesome, for a variety of reasons.  First, it does go to show that there are people who study philosophy, become successful, and then recognize that philosophy played some role in that success, and then want to give back in tangible ways.  Second, in an era when donors are often much more interested in getting the prestige that comes with charitable giving than in precisely who the recipients are, it is excellent that he specified that the money is supposed to be used to advance and sustain philosophical study.  Administrators and trustees can't get their proverbially grubby hands on it, and use it for their pet projects or favored programs.  It will hopefully get spent on genuinely worthwhile projects, people, and programs.  Here's what the money will accomplish, according to Bloomberg:
The commitment will help the department increase full-time faculty to 22 from 13 and create endowed professorships for the chairperson and eight others, the school said Tuesday in a statement. The university also aims to attract more undergraduates to study philosophy through new courses.
As Baltimore Business Journal reports, the department will also be changing its name to the "William H. Miller Department of Philosophy."

At the same time, for the rest of the profession, it is indeed too bad.  A wonderful opportunity to make a major difference has effectively been squandered. This one lump-sum donation to one single institution - if the goal really is to help out a discipline so often on the ropes - seems poorly thought out.  John Hopkins has some great researchers and teachers who make solid contributions to philosophy.  But so do countless other colleges, universities, and other organizations that do not enjoy the high prestige or financial status and security of John Hopkins, or of elite universities in general.  Was it really a rational allocation of that generosity to funnel it straight and solely into one department rather than to spread it around?  There assuredly are places where even just a portion of that money would have much greater impact on promoting philosophy as a profession, and in better educating students in philosophy on a potentially massive scale.

Of course one can respond that it's Miller's money, and he can therefore do whatever he likes with it.  Quite true.  I doubt anyone asserts his gift to John Hopkins is somehow a bad thing.  It is a net gain for the profession.  But it is entirely legitimate for any of us to criticize his choice, precisely as philosophers.

It's perfectly reasonable to see that gift and think:  "Right, more money for the already abundantly well-funded."  In a time when across the nation we see programs being cut, students struggling, and the widespread impoverishment of an entire adjunct class, even a fraction, a sliver, just crumbs of that money could have been used to make a major positive difference throughout the field.

The last thing I'll say on this matter is that I have no doubt that Miller was given advice from all sorts of people about his decision.  But he might have done better to set aside a mere fraction of the massive gift he intended ultimately to make simply to hire someone (or even a team) who could have drawn up a list of worthy potential beneficiaries of his largesse.

He could have decided that John Hopkins philosophy department gets $50 million, and then doled half of that out to other departments, programs, and organizations.  He could have endowed chairs of philosophy at dozens of struggling state schools or private colleges.  The list of other measures he could have taken with his money, with aims of promoting and protecting the discipline he praises, stretches out interminably. 

So, good for philosophy at John Hopkins, and for those others to whom some good trickles down.  But for the rest of the field, it is like hearing about how a castle several countries over is getting a beautiful new remodeling job, funded by a local magnate.  We might glance at the pictures, but then it's time to get back with the work in the unchanged world we know and live in.