A University Gift to Get the Tech World and Humanity Better Acquainted

Cornell campus. photo:  Lewis Liu/shutterstock

Cornell campus. photo:  Lewis Liu/shutterstock

As the tech industry draws intensifying scrutiny for the power it has over everything from groceries to politics, a $20 million donation to Cornell aims to produce students who have tech savvy, but also a “context and ethical framework.”

The grant from Howard Milstein and family will establish the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity, which will bridge Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences in Ithaca with the brand-new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. The multidisciplinary program will serve 100 students, 25 per class, to pursue an arts and sciences degree from the Ivy League school, while picking up computer science and rubbing shoulders with members of New York’s tech economy.

The idea is that up-and-coming leaders will need better proficiency in technology, but also that the tech economy could use broad-based education and a dose of the humanities and social sciences. 

The program “will provide not only a foundation for students to develop the technical, intellectual and organizational skills they need to drive progress in the digital age, but also a context and ethical framework that will equip them to shape society for the better,” Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said in the announcement.

The donation comes from the Milstein family, including Cornell alums Howard Milstein and son Michael Milstein, who came up with the idea and hashed it out with the deans of the Arts and Sciences College and Cornell Tech. 

Howard Milstein is a wealthy New York banking exec and tech investor. He’s head of New York Private Bank & Trust and Emigrant Savings Bank and oversees subsidiaries that have been criticized and even sued for home lending practices in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Milstein is also a prominent donor in New York, having made large contributions to universities, libraries, hospitals and cultural institutions. 

Cornell Tech, which just opened its permanent campus this year, is itself partially a product of philanthropy. The school was initiated by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The city incubated its development with real estate and $100 million in backing. Cornell Tech then raised more than $750 million, including from donors like Charles Feeney and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Some faculty worry about the project pulling Cornell toward a more business and tech focus. So this bridge between the two campuses arrives against that backdrop, but also a growing drumbeat of distrust toward the tech industry overall. Facebook, Google and Twitter are currently testifying before the U.S. Congress over their roles in the spread of disinformation during the 2016 election.

The tech industry and academia also have a tense relationship, with Peter Thiel, for example, paying young people $100,000 each to drop out of college and pursue “new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” Some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful leaders are, famously, college dropouts.

While a unique program, this isn’t the first time philanthropists have tried to temper the fast-moving tech industry. A number of donors and foundations support efforts to bring thinkers in ethics and law to the table around artificial intelligence. This is also just the latest donation seeking to bridge different disciplines, as well as academia with industry.