"A Better Society." Explaining Another Big Campus Gift for Philosophy

UCLA. photo: Ken Wolter/shutterstock

UCLA. photo: Ken Wolter/shutterstock

Roughly six months after finance titan Bill Miller's $75 million donation to Johns Hopkins University's philosophy department, UCLA received $20 million to support its own philosophy department, plus $5 million for funding to create a $15 million endowment to provide financial support for graduate students in the humanities division.

Are we on the cusp of a philosophy giving golden age?

Time will tell. But at the very least, the two gifts underscore something we've been saying for quite some time at Inside Philanthropy: Donors remain steadfast in their support for the liberal arts. What's more, corroborating evidence suggests that these donors increasingly see themselves as a kind of philanthropic bulwark against a gathering storm of technology-driven forces sweeping modern society.

I'll explore the latter development momentarily. But first, let's briefly dig into the gift to UCLA.

The donors here are Jordan Kaplan, the CEO and president of real estate investment trust Douglas Emmett Inc., his wife Christine, and Jordan’s longtime business partner, Ken Panzer. The trio made the gift in honor of Jordan’s parents, Renée and David Kaplan—each of whom has been a member of the UCLA faculty for almost 60 years—and to recognize his father’s contributions to the study of philosophy.

The gift, the second largest made to the UCLA College during the ongoing Centennial Campaign for UCLA, comes two years after Renée, David, Jordan and Christine Kaplan donated funds to establish the Presidential Professor of Philosophy endowed chair.

Mega-gifts earmarked for philosophy are still rare, but they don't occur in a cultural vacuum. Both sets of gifts come during a precarious time in history in which higher ed donors find themselves concerned with nothing less than the humanity (for lack of a better term) of the body politic.

This concern manifests itself in many forms.

For instance, social scientists and psychologists continually remind us that technology—and social media in particular—can bring out the worst in us. "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works," wrote former Facebook employee Chamath Palihapitiya. "No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth."

So when the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave $750,000 to Minneapolis Institute of Art to establish a Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts last year, it wasn't too hard to make the connection. The institute will explore ways the visual arts can foster empathy and compassion to "affect positive social change." 

Even greater threats to humanity loom on the horizon. Three that come to mind are advanced robotics, AI, and ubiquitous automation. These technologies could radically upend the concept of work, one of the fundamental components of the human experience. What happens to society and an individual's sense of self-worth when, if we're to believe a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, as many as 800 million jobs—and 73 million in the U.S. alone—are eventually lost to automation?

In response, Keith Block, vice chairman, president and COO of Salesforce, and his wife, Suzanne Kelley, VP of operations & PMO, global business units at Oracle Corporation, made the lead $15 million gift to establish the Block Center for Technology and Society at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy to "examine the "impact of technology on the ways in which workers at all skill levels will make their living in the 21st century."

In voicing concern around technology's impact on society, higher ed donors also acknowledge there's no putting the genie back in the bottle. The world has changed, and practically speaking, liberal arts students could probably use some STEM classes to complement their French literature degrees. As a result, we're seeing many traditional liberal arts schools—Wellesley College and Amherst College being the most recent examples—draw impressive donor support for this kind of blended curricula. 

But the study of philosophy extends beyond mere ones and zeros. To question whether it will land a graduate a lucrative engineering job is reductive. 

Rather, donors like the Kaplans, Panzer and Miller recognize philosophy's utility in, to quote professor Seana Shiffrin, chair of UCLA's philosophy department, touching "on every aspect of life—including issues about what sort of creatures we are and could become, what we can know of ourselves and others, how we should treat one another, whether we are capable of forming a better society and what that would look like, and the significance of our mortality.

"A philosophy education introduces students to captivating ideas and perennial questions while imparting crucial skills of analysis, argumentation, clarity and precision."

Similarly, Bill Miller told the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

I agree with the comment that Stanley Fish, a former Hopkins professor and literary critic, made about what the liberal arts are good for. He said they’re good for nothing. Instead, they are good in and of themselves; they don’t need further justification. I didn’t study philosophy because I thought it would help me in my career to make a lot of money, but it’s certainly done that.

Earlier in the piece, I mentioned that the jury is still out in terms of philosophy being the next big funding area across higher ed. But stranger things have happened.

Remember, the larger philanthropic climate is a lot different than it was even five years ago. Civic-minded donors—like a lot of other people—are increasingly fretting about a technology-driven, socially balkanized, and, dare I say it, dystopian future. Philosophy's role in helping humanity form "a better society," as Shiffrin put it, is appealing to these kinds of donors, including Jordan Kaplan.

"We are proud to participate in UCLA’s Centennial Campaign and be able to meaningfully support humanities and philosophy, areas of study that we feel are particularly important now to the health of our modern society," he said.

At the same time, research indicates the STEM gold rush may start to lose steam, at least in those parts of the country where the supply of skills outpaces demand. 

But perhaps the most encouraging barometer regarding accelerated philosophy giving lies in the fact that, as Miller himself noted, very rich people like Carl Icahn, Leon Black, Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman once studied philosophy. Miller said it would be "great" if they followed his lead by giving money to this timeless field.

Commenting on his gift to UCLA, Jordan Kaplan expressed a similar sentiment.

"Our hope is that this gift will encourage others to recognize the importance of these departments and join us in providing them with very much needed support."