Investor Bill Miller promises $75 million to Johns Hopkins University philosophy department

For legendarily successful stockpicker William H. “Bill” Miller III, the question was not so much philosophical as practical.

“What am I going to do with this money, which I obviously can’t take with me?” the now -67-year-old fund manager asked himself.

The answer Miller came up with, at least for $75 million of his fortune, was to give it to the Johns Hopkins University philosophy department.

Tuesday’s announcement of the eye-popping sum, the largest ever to any of the university’s humanities departments, quickly spread through ivory towers across the country, where contemplating concepts like existentialism and ontology gave way however temporarily to marveling at this number in the high eight figures.

“It’s terrific news for Johns Hopkins and the discipline as a whole,” said Cheshire Calhoun, an Arizona State University philosophy professor and chair of the board of officers of the American Philosophical Association. “You could create one of the best programs in the nation with that. What a progressive and astute move on the part of Mr. Miller to invest in philosophy at this moment in history.”

As it turns out, Miller is as conversant in matters of the mind as of the market: He was working on a doctorate in philosophy at Hopkins in the 1970s before leaving to pursue a career in investment management. He completed the coursework but, as so many before him, “didn’t write the dissertation,” Miller said in an interview.

Philosophy’s loss was money managing’s gain. Miller eventually joined Legg Mason, where the fund he managed beat the returns on the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 stock index for an unparalleled 15 years in a row from 1991 to 2005.

While he suffered a setback making bad bets during the global financial crisis of 2008, he remains renowned in the field, among the first to recognize the value of Amazon. He left Legg Mason in 2016 to found Miller Value Partners, which runs two mutual funds out of the Alex. Brown Building in downtown Baltimore.

He never, though, lost his love of philosophy and, even now, casually tosses off references to such philosophical concepts as pragmatism and realism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when it came to estate planning, Miller wanted to get the most bang for his philanthropic bucks. What areas were neglected, he thought, and where could he “really move the needle.”

Miller said he realized how his study of philosophy had been key to his success. His interest in probing life’s most perplexing questions began after taking a single philosophy class as an undergraduate at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.

That experience inspired him to read more philosophy while serving as a military intelligence officer with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, and then to further his studies by enrolling in a doctoral program at Johns Hopkins once his military service ended.

“I attribute much of my business success to the analytical training and habits of mind that were developed when I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins,” he said in a statement. “I am delighted to show my gratitude by helping to move the department to its rightful place among the best in the country.”

Initially, Miller, who describes himself as “healthy but not terribly fit,” planned to leave the money in his will; but further discussions with Hopkins officials convinced him to donate now, and enjoy seeing “the fruits of the gift.”

Among other things, Miller’s $75 million will be used to nearly double the department’s full-time faculty members in the next decade from 13 teachers to 22 and to create nine endowed professorships, including one for the chairman of the renamed William H. Miller Department of Philosophy. In addition, $10 million will be allocated for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The university also aims to encourage more undergraduates to study philosophy by offering new courses.

Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said that Miller’s promised gift demonstrates that philosophy continues to be relevant to life in the 21st century.

“Philosophy matters,” Daniels said in the announcement. “The contemporary challenges of the genomics revolution, the rise of artificial intelligence, the growth in income inequality, social and political fragmentation and our capacity for devastating war all invite philosophical perspective. Bill Miller’s unprecedented commitment … underscores the continuing vitality and relevance of the humanities.”

Miller said he’d like the money to vault Hopkins into one of the top 10 philosophy departments in the next 10 years.

“It’s a question of resources,” he said. “That’s what this is designed to do, to help compete with the top programs.”

Vaulting to the top ten may be ambitious: The most in-depth ranking of the field appears to be the “Philosophical Gourmet Report,” started some 25 years ago by Brian Leiter, now a University of Chicago professor, and it currently places the Hopkins department at number 40.

“Wow!” he wrote on his “Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog” Tuesday morning. “This really will be transformative for the department.”

Letier co-edits the ranking system, which has its detractors. It is derived from surveys of hundreds of philosophy professors who are asked to assess the quality of faculty. Hopkins’ ranking is largely a factor of its small size, he said.

Leiter said he expects to see Hopkins go on a faculty recruiting binge, but also to contribute to more scholarship in the field.

And perhaps the staggering size of the donation will spawn similar generosity to other philosophy departments, he said.

“I hope it inspires other gifts,” Leiter said. “Gifts of this size usually go to professional schools — medical schools, law schools, business schools. It’s quite dramatic.”

Philosophy has been a part of the Hopkins curriculum since the university was founded in 1876, Richard Bett, the department’s chairman, said in the announcement. Perhaps the department’s most famous alumnus is the philosopher, educator and social reformer John Dewey, who received his doctorate from Hopkins in 1884.

It is a history Miller knows well. He notes that Hopkins’ first president, Daniel Coit Gilman, tried unsuccessfully to lure one of the greatest American philosophers, William James, to Baltimore from Harvard. Now, Miller said, he wants his gift to make sure the biggest fish in today’s philosophical seas don’t get away.

“You want some of the best philosophers doing their best work here,” he said. “You want to attract the best graduate students.”

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mmccauley@baltsun.com

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