Score One for the Liberal Arts: Why That Big Campus Gift for Philosophy Matters

Socrates. photo:  Anastasios71/shutterstock

Socrates. photo:  Anastasios71/shutterstock

Despite what conventional wisdom may suggest, reports of the death of humanities-related philanthropy, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. IP's Higher Ed vertical is replete with examples of funders giving big to support the liberal arts.

That said, giving generally flows to the "usual suspects" like endowments, blended curriculum, and digitization projects. All of which makes investor Bill Miller's $75 million donation to Johns Hopkins University's philosophy department both unique and tantalizing.

According to the school, Miller's largess will allow Hopkins' department to nearly double in size, while also supporting graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and new courses aimed at attracting undergraduates. Deemed "wonderfully contrarian" by university president Ronald Daniels, the gift also appears to be the largest by far to a philosophy department anywhere in the world. 

"Contrarian" is the operative word here. A gift like Miller's makes great copy, but its outlier status suggests donors may not follow his lead anytime soon.

The Investor Who Beat the Market

"Contrarian" gifts tend to come from "contrarian" givers, and Miller certainly fits the bill. 

Bill Miller is a Wall Street icon. He served as the chairman and chief investment officer of Legg Mason Capital Management and the principal portfolio manager of the Legg Mason Capital Management Value Trust, whose after-fee returns famously beat the S&P 500 index for 15 consecutive years from 1991 through 2005. 

In 2005, Miller attributed his success to "95% luck" and estimated the probability of beating the market during that stretch was 1 in 2.3 million. Then the financial crisis hit, and his luck started to run out. Losses accumulated, investors fled, and Miller handed over leadership of the fund in 2012. 

Last year, Miller kicked off what he called his "second act," purchasing two mutual funds he had started at Legg Mason. His hedge fund is making a big bet on Bitcoin, a move which echoes his early support of a fledgling online retailer called Amazon.

A Gift With "Significant Impact"

Like any investment, there's both a backstory and design behind Miller's big bet on philanthropy. For starters, Miller has a relationship with Hopkins. He pursued graduate studies in philosophy in its Ph.D. program while working part-time in accounting.

Ever the savvy investor, he also adheres to what I'd call the "teaspoon theory" of big philanthropy. 

Back in 2016 when Los Angeles financier Jeffrey Gundlach startled the arts community with a $42.5 million donation to Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery, he said, "I tend to do things, not with teaspoons, but to try to make a difference. Let’s say I gave $42.5 million to the Met—you wouldn’t be able to find it with a microscope."

The same logic applies to Miller's gift. As Jennifer Schuessler notes in the New York Times, $75 million may seem modest compared with the $1.5 billion the Michael Bloomberg has given Hopkins over the years, until you realize the money is flowing to the school's small and underfunded philosophy department. That money will go a long way.

Miller understands this. "I wanted the gift to go to something where it would have a significant impact, and change the trajectory," he said.

In addition, Miller is a rare donor who can articulate how the liberal arts—and philosophy in particular—influenced his life and career.

Philosophy "has made a huge difference both to my life outside business, in terms of adding a great degree of richness and knowledge, and to the actual decisions I've made in investing," he said.

Commenting on his most famously contrarian investment, he explained, "There was a huge amount of confirmation bias going on with Amazon. There was an inability to do what Wittgenstein talked about in his 'Philosophical Investigations': crisscrossing the landscape from many angles, investigating in many different ways."

When donors promote the tangible benefits of the liberal arts, that's a good thing. When donors like Bill Miller promote the tangible benefits of philosophy, that's even better. The field needs all the advocates it can get.

Changing the Narrative

Whether Miller's gift leads to a surge in giving to philosophy departments remains to be seen.

At the very least, the gift sends a strong signal to the public that "there’s something of value in philosophy, and fits with an increasing number of testimonials from those in the business world about the advantages of studying philosophy," according to Justin Weinberg, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina.

"These employment-related benefits would not be the whole story of philosophy’s value, but it is good for the public—including students and their parents—to hear."

It's also good for other donors to hear.

After all, many philanthropists attribute their success to the liberal arts. Many, including investor Carl Icahn, venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, and businessman Ed Scott, studied philosophy. Yet relatively speaking, few of these donors "give back" to the liberal arts, much less philosophy, in a big way. Why?

I suspect one main reason involves donors' interpretation of what Miller calls "significant impact."

The dominant narrative in higher ed philanthropy argues that fields like STEM education provide the best pathway to meaningful employment, which draws campus givers looking to have impact.  

But recent research culled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics suggests that STEM's "impact" may be overstated. The number of graduates with technical majors awarded in 2015-2016 tends to outpace projected job openings. (Computer science is the exception.) 

Add it all up, and university fundraisers focused on the liberal arts have reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Many affluent donors intuitively understand the value of the liberal arts. And many, just like Miller, "made their money doing things very differently than what they studied," according to Brian Gawor, vice president for research in consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s fund-raising management division.

But these donors need an extra push, and Miller's compelling defense of philosophy, coupled with an evolving body of evidence around of what constitutes "significant impact," may pave the way for similar gifts from unlikely sources in the future.