Seven Things to Know About Amber Miller, the Hewlett Foundation’s Incoming President

Seven Things to Know About Amber Miller, the Hewlett Foundation’s Incoming President

Eight years ago, Amber Miller was driving to school with her then-four-year-old daughter when she mentioned that if Hillary Clinton won the upcoming election, the New York senator would become the first woman president. 

From the backseat, her daughter replied: “That’s weird, why?”

“I instantly realized that there was nothing in her world, up to that point, to suggest that women were anything but as likely, or even potentially more likely, to hold important jobs than men,” Miller recalled in a 2020 webinar. “I instantly felt sad and wished I hadn’t seeded that kernel of doubt for her.”

With her appointment as the president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Miller will take the $13 billion grantmaker, founded in 1966, off the list of American institutions that have never had a woman leader, just as she did upon assuming her prior role as dean of USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Yet as her recollection of that conversation with her daughter suggests, as does her choice not to mention the groundbreaking nature of her appointment in her LinkedIn post about the news, reciting those milestones can distract as much as reveal. 

An experimental astrophysicist who has published more than 100 scientific papers, Miller has a category-busting resume that spans advising the New York City Police Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, becoming the inaugural dean of science at Columbia University and serving as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

She has jokingly credited her “intellectual impatience” for her range of pursuits. “That curiosity led me to keep exploring,” she once said. “I was always looking for the next subject that I didn’t know about, that I couldn’t yet figure out.” It’s a fitting quality for someone who’ll lead a foundation with a famously academic approach to grantmaking — both in terms of its grantees (think tanks and university researchers are frequent recipients) as well as its penchant for lengthy discourse and strategic deep dives. 

Miller spent her childhood searching, as well. She was the child of “hippies” who let her pass her days roaming the Malibu mountains. She later commuted to Santa Monica High School, then left Southern California for college, but stayed in the Golden State, earning a B.A. in astronomy and physics from the University of California, Berkeley. “California is absolutely home to me,” as she once said.

Miller arrived at USC Dornsife — the “largest, oldest and most diverse” school on campus — in 2016. Her most often-noted accomplishment is the Public Exchange, which worked to connect academic expertise to captains of industry and government leaders. It was motivated in part by her experience as a dean at Columbia University: In five years, she never once received a call for expert help from such leaders.

One more first: Miller, who will take the reins at Hewlett in September, will also be the first scientist to lead the foundation. Her investigations as a cosmologist have taken her from the Antarctic tundra to 17,000 feet above sea level in the Chilean Andes. She once led the release of balloon-borne telescopes in a search for light produced when the universe was less than a second old. She has summarized her work as “finding out what set off the Big Bang.” 

“Cosmology is really the study of the universe as a whole: Where did the universe come from? How did it evolve? How did we all come to be?” she said in a college panel a couple years ago. “It’s kind of the most fundamental question, in some ways, that humanity has been asking since the beginning of time.”

After all that, hopefully philanthropy won’t be too much of a letdown. 

Here are seven more things to know about Miller.

She has been, unsurprisingly, gung-ho on university research

Name a contemporary issue, and chances are good that Miller has argued that the nation’s research universities can address it.

The climate crisis? “Universities are capable of playing a powerful role in addressing the challenges of climate change,” she wrote on LinkedIn a month ago, introducing a discussion on climate solutions. 

COVID-19? “Society needs university researchers, and this last year has proven that point,” she wrote on the platform a few years ago, alongside a link to a news report of USC’s work on the pandemic.

AI? “The world needs engineers and computer scientists to solve the grand challenges we face,” she said in a press release last year announcing the launch of a $1 billion USC computing initiative focused, in part, on artificial intelligence.

One summation of these views came in a 2020 op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “Research Universities Are a Wasted Resource,” which lamented “the vast storehouse of creativity and expertise in research universities that is largely untapped by civic and business leaders.” The Public Exchange initiative at USC was her response.

One might expect exactly this from a college dean, and given the already highly intellectual bent of much of Hewlett’s grantmaking, Miller seems likely to continue in that vein.

She’s been a grantee

Like most scientists, Miller knows her way around grant applications. Grants and awards on her CV include plenty of entries from institutions like NASA and the National Science Foundation, but there are also a couple from private philanthropy, including fellowships from the Dodds Foundation and Alfred P. Sloan early in her career. 

She’s also served as a nonprofit trustee, including currently as a board member of the New York Academy of Sciences. At USC Dornsife, she also managed a budget of more than $500 million, nearly the same as Hewlett’s grants budget, which hit $558 million in 2022. What is not mentioned on her resume or bios  is any direct experience as a grantmaker. Like past Hewlett presidents, it appears she will be learning on the job.

Stanford Law School is breathing a sigh of relief

In 1999, the Hewlett Foundation — whose current offices sit roughly 40 minutes by foot west of Stanford Law’s campus — poached the college’s dean as its new president. When Paul Brest left the post more than a decade later, the grantmaker struck again, luring Larry Kramer down Sand Hill Road and into philanthropy.

With Miller coming onboard, it’ll be the first time in 25 years that the Menlo Park funder will be led by someone other than a former Stanford Law dean. It also marks a generational shift at Hewlett. In replacing the 65-year-old Kramer, the 52-year-old Miller is the first member of Generation X to lead Hewlett. 

She likes bringing people together

Another major initiative Miller started at USC Dornsife was the Center for the Political Future, launched in 2018, which hopes to foster dialogue across political divides. 

As she put it on a 2020 podcast: “Our society has a very serious problem right now in our lack of capacity to talk to each other in many, many different ways,” she said. “What we’re doing is, we’re trenching into our own identity groups more and more and more.”

It’s been a long-time passion. “Her proven ability to bring people together across disciplines without losing the heart of the humanities holds extraordinary promise for USC,” said the university’s then-president C. L. Max Nikias. That was upon her appointment in 2016.

She even once taught a course called “Physics for Poets.” 

She cares about climate change — and also immigration

If her past public comments and writings are any measure, the climate crisis is forefront in her mind, and migration and cyber issues pop up surprisingly often. 

  • An op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Today’s challenges — a changing climate, political and economic uncertainty, human migration — call for expertise beyond science and technology”

  • A podcast: “And not just energy and the environment. There’s immigration, there’s global health, and then when you get to maybe slightly one level down, but still critically important, there’s cybersecurity; there are so many issues that we have got to figure out.”

  • A blog post: “The 21st century presents new societal challenges that are as capricious as they are knotty. There is a war on cancer and a war on terrorism. There are environmental crises and humanitarian crises. There is a politically polarized nation and a technologically impatient culture.”

She values lived experience

“Almost every extraordinary person I have ever known has lived through something difficult at a formative time in their lives,” Miller said in her commencement address to the USC Dornsife class of 2024. Her actions suggest that’s not just a nugget for COVID-era graduates. 

In 2018, she created the college’s first chief diversity officer role, as well as ramping up support for groups underrepresented in academia, including women and people of color, through a plan that spanned recruitment, fellowships, and support for students, faculty and leadership.

A taste for casting spells

I’m not sure you can learn much about a person from their choice of Halloween costumes, but Miller once said that as an elementary student she had a runaway favorite: witch.

Now she’s got Hewlett’s philanthropic wand in her hands. Hopefully, we all get to see some magic.

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