Amy Villarejo, Director of the Milstein Program spoke to the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach to research and education.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Amy Villarejo, Director of the Milstein Program spoke to the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach to research and education.

February 7, 2019

Milstein Program Welcomes Cohort of 14 Students in Its Inaugural Year

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Corrections appended.

This academic year marks the inauguration of the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity, an initiative in the College of Arts and Sciences that aims to provide students with an education that combines the University’s liberal arts offerings and exposure to front-end technology provided by Cornell Tech.

The program was announced in 2017 and the first class of 14 students entered Cornell in the fall. Students enrolled in the program will complete special technology and project-based coursework in addition to completing any of the 40 majors offered in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The vision for the program began five years ago with Gretchen Ritter ’83, the former dean of the arts college and Dan Huttenlocher, the current dean of Cornell Tech, who both sought to build greater academic ties between the education of technology — algorithms, data and design — and the diverse, broad-based curriculum available to liberal arts students.

The program is a unique mix of engineering, design, humanities and ethics training that is difficult to achieve elsewhere within Cornell, according to Anderson.

The program also features two summers of study at the Cornell Tech campus, where students will have the opportunity to conduct research and participate in internships alongside leaders in both academia and industry.

“For example, our goal is to take in a kid who is really passionate about literature, and help create a more literate tech world,” said Prof. Amy Villarejo, director of the program. “Or the reverse — produce a journalist who has a far better understanding of how tech actually works.”

Villarejo specifically cited Prof. Rick Johnson, electrical and computer engineering, as an example of the sort of interdisciplinary type of thinking that the Milstein Program aims to instill in its students.

For most of his 37-year career at Cornell, Johnson specialized in the study of advanced algorithms and signal processing, but also long held a deep love for 17th-century Dutch painting. In what Villarejo called an “epiphany moment,” Johnson realized he could merge the science of imaging with art — a novel combination that spawned an entirely new field called “computational art history,” which has made significant strides in dating paintings and analyzing their composition.

“That kind of capacity to recognize and integrate two entirely different areas is what produces true innovation,” Villarejo said. “And that’s exactly what the program is striving for.”

The program is funded by a $20 million grant gifted by the Milstein family —  prolific University benefactors who have previously helped to fund the Milstein Hospital Building and Milstein Hall in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.

However, large donations earmarked to a single program have sparked concerns that wealthy alumni may be unduly influencing the university’s priorities. Much of Cornell’s endowment is considered “donor-restricted,” according to the University’s most recent financial statements, which means they can only be used in specified ways.

While empathizing with such feelings, Villarejo said “they weren’t accurate” as it was the deans of both schools that are really behind the planning of the initiative.

“The program isn’t just for the enrolled students,” Villarejo added. “It’s about facilitating events, programming, coursework, and other interdisciplinary initiatives that will … spill over … and benefit everyone at Cornell.”

For instance, the program will sponsor a speaker’s series on the Ithaca campus this semester that includes appearances by Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the New York City public theater and Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of Mozilla, according to Villarejo.

Moreover, by more closely linking the arts — which Villarejo called an often overlooked, but a “crucial part of the design and technology process” — to STEM fields, she hopes that the Milstein program will ultimately help ward off the trend of “Cornell consistently decreasing funding to the arts.”

A cohort of 25 new students will be enrolled every year in the College of Arts and Sciences. The program will reach a total of 100 students by 2021, according to Villarejo.

Enrollees of the program will be selected from accepted high school students who have expressed interest in the program on the Common Application as well as Cornell freshmen who elect to apply in their second semester.

Given small class sizes, competition for the limited number of spots is expected to be fierce.

Over 100 students admitted to Cornell through early decision applied to the Milstein Program in the current admissions cycle; another several hundred are likely to do the same in the regular decision pool, according to Villarejo.

Through a process of faculty review and potential interviews among finalists, that number will have to be winnowed down to less than 15, Villarejo said.

The ideal student will be one who exhibits aptitude and passion for both liberal arts and technology, or, as Villarejo put, “students who genuinely have feet in both worlds.”

“I’ve always been really interested in Asian studies,” said Reza Madhavan ’22, one of the 14 students currently enrolled in the program. “And this was the only thing I could find that would allow me to continue fully studying that alongside computer science.”

Bliss Zheng ’22, another member of Milstein’s inaugural class, hoped that the program would allow her “to find ways to introduce biology’s unique perspectives and applications to technology.”

The Milstein program’s push to create tighter bonds between liberal arts and STEM is timely, Villarejo said.

“Everyday, the headlines show why we need to do a better job combining liberal arts with technology,” Villarejo explained. “One of the main goals of the program is to introduce into the tech industry questions regarding ethics and values…questions broader than what the industry has been able to deal with so far.” 

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that half of Milstein Program’s enrollees will be selected from high school applicants who demonstrated interest and the other half will be from freshmen who apply in their second semester. In fact, while these are only two entry points into the program and there is not a half-and-half division.

The article also incorrectly stated that Prof. Amy Villarejo said wealthy alumni may be unduly influencing the university’s priorities. In fact, Prof. Villarejo expressed understanding of this opinion but did not make this comment.