NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — It could be among the most frightening things a college student can tell his or her tuition-paying parents: “I’m going to major in philosophy.”
But at Rutgers University, the humanities study — already recognized as a strong point for the university — is getting a major boost with donations totaling $3 million to endow a faculty chair in the subject.
It’s happening in large part because an anonymous donor who offered half the money as part of a $27 million challenge grant to the university in 2011 has indicated a fondness for the field, which trains people to build arguments based on evidence while pondering deep questions.
University officials are using the position to show the humanities remain important to Rutgers even as it strives to become a powerhouse in biomedical research.
Rutgers officials and many of New Jersey’s politicians believe that the flagship state university, located in a hotspot of pharmaceutical firms, can make a leap from respected to elite largely by strengthening its biomedical status.
That was one of the main reasons lawmakers gave Rutgers control last year of two medical schools that were formerly part of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
But life sciences have not been a traditional strength for Rutgers. Its most highly rated programs are in math, physics and the humanities. Groups that rank university departments place Rutgers’ philosophy department as one of the best in the English-speaking world. The university says it wants to maintain those strengths while building new ones.
In 2011, an anonymous donor pledged $27 million to Rutgers — the largest gift ever for the university — in matching funds to establish 18 endowed chairs in a variety of fields. The university must find other donors to match the $1.5 million cost for each position.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is donating the rest of the money for the philosophy chair, which will be named for the late banker and foundation namesake. Jim Masschaele, the acting vice dean of humanities at Rutgers, said the school hopes to have a high-profile scholar in the position in time for the 2015-16 school year.
So far, 11 of the endowed chairs have been announced university-wide. The philosophy position is the first of them to be in the humanities.
“It’s a huge thing,” said Jeff King, the chairman of the philosophy department who said his parents “just about died on the spot” when he switched his major from math to philosophy as an undergraduate. “This is the first endowed chair we’ve had. We’re a public university and we’re competing against a lot of elite private universities with huge endowments.”
King said the focus on biomedical research and the addition of medical schools at Rutgers could help disciplines like his. For instance, he said, the department is considering expanding its medical ethics role.
And those philosophy majors, King said, are preparing for law school and jobs in fields that value analysis.
“There’s this misconception,” he said, “when people talk about philosophy it seems so far removed from any real job.”
But Jimmy Goodrich, a Rutgers senior, said job skills are not why he and other students major in philosophy. “The answer from most people, including me, is an appetite and inclination for abstract puzzle-solving,” he said. “It’s just fun.”
Goodrich, a Houston native who is deciding between Rutgers and Princeton for graduate school in philosophy, transferred to Rutgers because it has perhaps the most renowned department in the field of any public university in the U.S.
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