A $75 million bet on the humanities

At a time when algorithms and quants rule Wall Street, one of America's legendary investors is placing a $75-million wager on a group of students seldom lauded for their arithmetic agility: philosophy majors. Bill Miller — who beat the market for 15 straight years while at Legg Mason — is betting humanities students have the critical thinking skills and global perspective needed to lead in the digital age.

Mr. Miller recently donated $75 million to fund the study of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. His decision may come as a surprise to some, as financial firms scramble to hire computer scientists and mathematicians, not philosophers. But when Mr. Miller approached the Johns Hopkins board, on which I sit, the thesis behind his decision was clear: Philosophy is the best tool to hone the essential human skills needed in our rapidly changing world.

While Mr. Miller is renowned for his historic streak at Legg Mason, few know that he applies the tools of a scholar to the problems of an investor. He is totally absorbed not only in the analytical process but also in learning new and disparate information across the impossibly broad spectrum of topics that inform his genius. In fact, he studied philosophy in the PhD program at Hopkins himself. This enables him to find the far-sighted investments that algorithms fail to spot, often delivering the huge payouts that built his towering reputation.

Now, he is taking another contrarian position. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a deep grounding in the humanities is becoming more important as globalization and technological change accelerate. Engaging intensely with great thoughts and ideas provides the critical thinking skills, ethical base and philosophical framework to navigate unprecedented disruption. While global information flows and new technologies allow us to access more data than ever, humans — not advanced algorithms — must decide how these tools are used to create value.

As many educational institutions redirect funds to science and technology, Mr. Miller’s gift is a bold outlier and a vote of confidence in the staying power of timeless human skills. It recognizes that while STEM education is important at providing technical know-how, tomorrow’s leaders need philosophy to sharpen and amplify the quintessentially human qualities that guide long-term strategy and direct science and technology to worthwhile ends.

The board and Mr. Miller expect that the donation will equip students to have an impact in both business and the broader world. As Mr. Miller has shown, the lifelong pursuit of knowledge embodied by philosophy can help its students to see hidden connections and the implications for companies and industries. This leads to the unconventional strategies, original thinking, and nuanced insights that are the hallmarks of true human advancement. They don’t hurt when it comes to beating the market either.

Of course, many students will choose to make their mark outside of business, in a world that seems to include more looming challenges every day. The current tally of potential global crises ranges from climate change and terrorism to pandemics and cyber warfare. Again, philosophy is unique because it focuses on the intrinsic human abilities needed to solve these complex, interdisciplinary problems. With Mr. Miller’s help, students at Johns Hopkins will take on these challenges, using the skills learned in philosophy courses to delve into new subjects, perceive overlooked solutions, and balance competing values and goals.

In short, the gift’s aim is to provide students at Johns Hopkins — one of the world’s intellectual leaders in the sciences and engineering — with the humane instincts and rigorous analytical framework to succeed, even amid seismic transformations. With this gift, Mr. Miller is betting that as our world advances, holding close to our humanity will be ever more important.

I wouldn't bet against him.

Heather H. Murren is a former group head at Merrill Lynch and a member of the Board of Trustees of Johns Hopkins University; she served on the 2009 Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which was established to examine the domestic and global causes of the financial crisis. Her views are her own.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°