There was no management association looking at Michelangelo and asking him to fill out semi-yearly progress reports in triplicate. Our aim is to support individual genius and free those people from the bureaucratic pettiness of academe.
—J. Roderick MacArthur, 1979
The MacArthur Fellows Program, commonly known as the “genius awards,” has many virtues. It is decentralized. It revived the notion of philanthropies giving directly to individuals, and it has spawned scores of imitators from foundations large and small that offer scores of prizes for the great and the good.
Moreover, the MacArthur Fellowship is the one philanthropic grant everyone wants and everyone dreams about. Because you cannot apply for it, the traditional nonprofit dance between the grant-seeking supplicant and the grant-wielding mandarin is eliminated.
And because you cannot apply for a MacArthur Fellowship, it has acquired what the program’s current director, Daniel J. Socolow, calls “that veil of mystery” that “is part of the magic” of the fellowships. They are awards every creative person wants, and they are ones wherein directors of the program find they suddenly have scores of new friends.
Catharine Stimpson, who directed the MacArthur Fellows Program between 1993 and 1996, told the New York Times in 2002 that when she was program director, “a lot of people advertised themselves. They’d say, ‘You don’t know this but I’m a genius.’ I got the sweetest call from a young man who said, ‘I love my wife. She’s a talented artist. Won’t you give her a MacArthur?’” The MacArthur Fellowships have become one of the few philanthropic awards to become part of popular culture. Despite its luster, the MacArthur Fellowship is a philanthropic mistake—a project that fails on its own terms. Through the wise guidance of mandarins looking for undiscovered genius, the MacArthur Foundation argues, great deeds will occur. This has not happened.
John D. MacArthur (1897–1978), the founder of Bankers Life and Casualty, left most of his billion-dollar fortune to charity with no instructions on how it was to be used. “I figured out how to make the money,” MacArthur told his lawyer, William Kirby. “You fellows will have to figure out how to spend it.”
Shortly after John D. MacArthur’s death in 1978, the MacArthur board of trustees received a letter from George Burch, dean of the Tulane University medical school, who wrote to say that the foundation ought to give long-term support to talented people. “Impressing review committees and dealing with pressure to publish [are] a waste of time,” Burch wrote, adding that far too often, grant applications were “pre-shrunk” to appeal to the grant programs of particular foundations.
Kirby and MacArthur’s son Rod hired former Ford vice president F. Champion Ward to help develop the fellowship program. As Ward noted, at the time, Rod MacArthur “hoped that the entire income of the foundation would be used for lifetime support of the MacArthur Fellows.” Ward then hired Gerald Freund, a Hunter College dean and a former Rockefeller Foundation program officer, to help refine how MacArthur Fellows were chosen.
On April 23 and 24, 1979, a meeting was held at the Century Association in New York City. The attendees included novelist Saul Bellow, a Nobel laureate; former U.S. attorney general Edward Levi; former National Endowment for the Humanities head Charles Frankel; former Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy; former television news executive Fred Friendly; sociologist Robert K. Merton; and Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine.
The two-day meeting was spent discussing who should be chosen for MacArthur Fellowships and how the choices should be made. The attendees decided that it would be better to choose people in mid-career rather than unproven young people or well-credentialed veterans. And instead of trying to find the best people in particular fields, they would seek the best people in the United States. The foundation, Freund wrote, “would seek an absolute standard of quality in its prize fellows.” An additional refinement came from the psychiatrist Eugene Borowitz. Borowitz, who had also spent some time in the Chicago Cubs baseball farm system, proposed that MacArthur adopt a method of recruiting similar to baseball scouting, where the recommendations are anonymous.
An August 1979 Newsweek article was apparently the first piece to claim that the MacArthur Fellows Program was a “genius grant.” In the article (headlined “A Fund for Geniuses”), Diane K. Shah wrote that “with $750 million to give away,” the MacArthur Foundation “will be the nation’s fifth richest philanthropic foundation. Under its bylaws, it could become either the biggest boon since the Medicis, or the biggest boondoggle in history.”
While the MacArthur Fellows Program was being refined during its first two years, Rod MacArthur was engaged in a titanic struggle over who would serve on the board. Part of the reason was ideological; the younger MacArthur was a liberal, and his foes were conservatives, including the radio commentator Paul Harvey and William Simon, the former treasury secretary. These trustees told the American Enterprise Institute’s Joshua Muravchik in 1992 that they were on the board because they shared the founder’s free-market principles. MacArthur “picked us to run things because he knew we mostly feel the same way about things that he did,” Paul Harvey said.
“We’re mostly a bunch of Midwestern businessmen devoted to free enterprise and opposed to more government controls,” said Bankers Life president Robert Ewing, the MacArthur Foundation’s first chairman of the board, in the late 1970s. “That’s the way we operate our businesses, and that’s the way we will run this foundation.” Another Bankers Life board member said the MacArthur Foundation board “was determined to avoid the internationalist, liberal-oriented pattern of philanthropy established by such big Eastern foundations as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie.” By 1981, all the conservatives at MacArthur had been purged except for Paul Harvey, with William Simon the last to go. Being on the MacArthur board, Simon said shortly before his death in 2000, was “the most frustrating experience of my life.”
Amid all this acrimony, the MacArthur Foundation board decided to make the MacArthur Fellows a fairly small part of what the MacArthur Foundation did. But given the foundation’s liberalism, it is clear that nearly all the MacArthur winners are on the left side of the political spectrum. In the 29 years since the first fellows were named, in 1981, only two grantees out of hundreds upon hundreds—Center for Neighborhood Enterprise president Robert Woodson and philosopher Leszek Kolakowski—were right of center when they won.
In a 1992 article in the New York Times Magazine, Anne Matthews published a list of the 102 original nominators of the MacArthur Fellows Program. These included two conservatives, philosopher Allan Bloom and Woodrow Wilson Center director James Billington. But most of the nominators on the list were liberals, including Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching president Ernest Boyer, author Frances Fitzgerald, National Public Radio president Frank Mankiewicz, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chair Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau.
When the first group of MacArthur Fellows was announced, in May 1981, Rod MacArthur stated that “this program is probably the best reflection of the rugged individualism exemplified by my father—the risky betting on individual explorers while everybody else is playing it safe on another track. If only a handful produce something of importance—whether it be a work of art or a major breakthrough in the sciences—it will have been worth the risk.”
Rod MacArthur’s statement was somewhat accurate for some of the younger winners. One of the first winners was 21-year-old Stephen Wolfram, who later made his fortune in software and used his wealth to produce a massive treatise on the nature of the universe. Another early winner was Henry Louis Gates, who was at the time a 30-year-old assistant professor of English at Yale. Gates used the fellowship to develop his craft, and he became one of the most garlanded academics and writers of the day.
But most of the time, the MacArthur selectors chose junior—or, in some cases, senior—members of the establishment. Three of the first winners—psychologist Robert Coles, historian Carl Schorske, and novelist James A. McPherson—had won Pulitzer Prizes. Another fellow, biologist Stephen Jay Gould, was comfortably ensconced at Harvard.
Then there was the award given to Robert Penn Warren. As Michael Kinsley noted in the New Republic, Warren not only had won three Pulitzers but also had been winning fellowships since 1928—53 years before his MacArthur Fellowship. With Warren having won the National Medal for Literature, the Copernicus Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and 12 honorary doctorates, Kinsley asked,
what philanthropic purpose is served…by conferring yet another honor on Robert Penn Warren, dear old poet though he may be?…Far from requiring 100 anonymous tipsters, putting together a list like this is a parlor game. Given one or two of the names, many people could come up with half a dozen others without even knowing what the list was for. It could be this year’s honorary degree recipients at Princeton, or a Presidential Commission on the Future of Values, or the celebrity endorsers for a particularly tony Scotch advertising campaign….Not one of the first MacArthur Fellows is suffering from lack of recognition for his or her talents. What’s more, though some probably can use the money more than others, not one really faces financial obstacles to exercising his or her creativity.
Kinsley concluded with these prophetic words: “They are already doing whatever it is that the MacArthur Foundation admires them for doing, and presumably they will keep on doing it, unless this windfall encourages them to stop.”
There have been no studies that looked at what the fellows did with the money. In a 2007 interview with the Harvard Business Review, MacArthur Fellows director Daniel J. Socolow stated, “Over the years, we have asked for and commissioned voluntary assessments of the impact of the award on the fellows’ work and lives. We have not sought to measure ‘productivity.’”
Socolow explained, “We think that by conferring a fellowship we transfer a heavy sense of responsibility to the individual. … Once you’ve won a MacArthur, the expectations that come from other people are quite high and remain high. I think many fellows feel impelled to prove to themselves and others that we were right in selecting them.”
But one must ask what evidence exists that the MacArthur Fellows Program has fulfilled the promise made by its creator: that by using the foundation’s wealth, the MacArthur Foundation would “find Michelangelo” or enable geniuses to create work they might not otherwise have created.
The evidence implies that the MacArthur Fellowship uses a great deal of philanthropic energy to fund awards that, except in a minority of cases, have made little difference in the lives of their recipients. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the prize has been of some influence to younger artists who received the fellowship and of less help to older, better-credentialed artists. Nan Robertson surveyed 19 “performing or visual artists” who received the MacArthur Fellowship in 1988 and found only one, the controversial theater director Peter Sellars, whose work changed as a result of the MacArthur grant. Sellars, who was 25 when he received his MacArthur Fellowship in 1983, took over the struggling Boston Shakespeare Company and used it as a vehicle for his avant-garde productions. Robertson found the more typical use to be what director John Sayles and documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman did with their grants. Sayles was able to fund his movie The Brother from Another Planet himself, and Wiseman used his MacArthur money to shoot movies first and then entice grant makers with actual footage rather than relying on “bland written proposals that seldom coax out dollars.”
What of the scientists? The MacArthur Fellowships have made much less of a difference to them because most of the science grantees, far from being lone wolves, have been professors, often tenured, who worked in teams in universities. In a 1988 article in the Boston Globe, Alison Bass reported that “most scientists already are paid for what they do and would do their work regardless of whether they received their prize. By contrast, most artists, except for a handful of superstars, spend a far greater amount of time struggling to feed themselves, squeezing in creative work whenever they can.” Bass interviewed MIT materials scientist Heather Lechtman, who put her $236,000 MacArthur Fellowship in her bank account. According to Bass, Lechtman said, “I would tell the MacArthur people to stop giving money to academics. Giving an artist five years of support would ensure much more visible, lasting results.” Douglas Osheroff, a 1981 fellow who worked at Bell Laboratories, said that his $184,000 award had “minimal impact” on his physics research. “I haven’t used it much except to buy computers and make some home improvements,” he told the New York Times.
At least one of the MacArthur science fellowships went to a recipient who was personally rejected by John D. MacArthur himself. Author Denise Shekerjian reported that at an unspecified time (probably in the 1970s), Patrick Noonan, who later became president of the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund, went to the seedy Palm Beach coffee shop where John D. MacArthur spent his days chain-smoking cigarettes, downing pots of coffee, and making deals. Noonan asked for money to preserve some undeveloped land MacArthur owned in Florida. According to Shekerjian, Noonan said, “You know, Mr. MacArthur, sir…saving the parklands…important wetlands…national heritage…ecology…” “Young man,” MacArthur replied, “I’ve never given away anything in my life, and I’m not about to start now.” He ordered Noonan to pay for his coffee on his way out. Noonan became a MacArthur Fellow in 1985, and in 1989 the land Noonan wanted to preserve became the John D. MacArthur State Park.
In 1989, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Liz McMillen wrote that the foundation was planning to alter the MacArthur Fellows Program dramatically. McMillen reported that “several board and staff members have expressed concern that the fellowships may not be the best way to support individual creativity among scientists, who tend to be well financed by other sources and to perform much of their research work in teams.” Other foundation staffers, according to McMillen, were also concerned that no one in business had ever gotten a fellowship. “If the goal is to foster creativity, we should look at the fellows, and the groups we’re not funding,” outgoing MacArthur Foundation president John Corbally said. “Then we might consider other programs to foster creativity.” Interviewed shortly before his death in 1984, Rod MacArthur admitted to the Washington Post that no great discoveries had yet resulted from the MacArthur Fellows Program. “I think it will take a decade,” he said, “before we really can say that it [i.e., great discoveries] is happening.”
One decade into the program, no great discoveries had been made, but certain patterns in giving had become clear. For some reason, an inordinate number of fellowships had been awarded to scholars at Princeton University, including seven in the first two years. By 1987, five MacArthur Fellows—physicist Joseph H. Taylor, historian Robert Darnton, physicist Edward Witten, astrophysicist James Gunn, and physicist David Gross—were all Princeton professors who lived on Hartley Avenue.
Another key to securing a MacArthur Fellowship was an association with the leftist journal Dissent. Surveying the MacArthur Fellows in 1991, Joshua Muravchik found that four winners—Irving Howe, Meyer Schapiro, Deborah Meier, and Paul Berman—were editors or contributing editors of Dissent, a democratic socialist quarterly. Four other MacArthur Fellows—Tina Rosenberg, Richard Rorty, Henry Louis Gates, and William Julius Wilson—had contributed to Dissent. In contrast, by 1991 none of the editors or contributing editors of the American Spectator, National Review, or Foreign Affairs had received any MacArthur Fellowships, and the New Republic and the Atlantic Monthly each had one contributing editor receive one.
The MacArthur Fellowship has gone through three phases, which happen to coincide with the tenures of three program directors. During the first phase, from 1981 to 1992, awards were given to some liberal activists. Kenneth Hope left in 1992 and was replaced by Catharine Stimpson, who took the fellows program in a more radical direction by steering it toward the multicultural race-and-gender left. While a fellowship was given to non-liberal Stanley Crouch in 1992, many of Stimpson’s fellows were hard leftists. Among the more notorious fellows under her tenure were musicologist Susan McClary, who declared that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was about “the throttling music rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release,” and historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, whose work The Legacy of Conquest, as John Leo wrote, argued that “the settling of the West was essentially one long spasm of greed, racism, sexism, and violence that isn’t over yet.”
In 1997, Stimpson was succeeded by Socolow. He told Forbes at the time about one change he hoped would happen; he said he would “like to see more entrepreneurs” win. “We wouldn’t fund Steve Jobs when he had Apple Computer, but might have when he was in his garage playing with a strange box.”
Socolow reiterated his views about business in his 2007 Harvard Business Review interview. “Our reasoning is that the market is a very effective support system for the best ideas in business,” Socolow said. “We serve those who do not fall under the influence of the market.” Although entrepreneurs were not “officially exempt” from MacArthur Fellowships, “we have yet to consider a business nominee for whom the market wasn’t a better source of support than we would be—and didn’t offer far more resources than we ever could.”
In fact, no entrepreneurs have received MacArthur Fellowships since Socolow became director. But he did turn the ship away from leeward somewhat; the fellows are not what they were in Stimpson’s day, an ingathering of fashionable leftists tending toward the extreme.
The process of finding “geniuses” has become increasingly routine. In 2002, University of Illinois at Chicago English professor Leonard J. Davis was the first nominator to reveal what the MacArthur nomination form was like. He was asked to submit a list of “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction….There are three criteria for selections of fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.” Each entry was to be accompanied by a three-page essay, for which Davis would not be paid. Writing a lengthy essay on someone he barely knew, Davis wrote,
made me feel that I had to generate not only admiration but also motivation. Did I want to do the research and write up several pages about someone I sort of admire but don’t really know that much about? Was I going to throw away an afternoon for someone I admire but don’t really like?…I obsessed over such questions for a couple of months, until I realized that the deadline for submitting nominations had passed. I was now in the unenviable position of having thrown away an amazing opportunity, killing the goose that laid the golden egg, and in effect having to live my life like anyone else who had never received an award from the MacArthur Foundation….Maybe, in the long run, it would be better to ask nominators to make a list of people least likely to succeed, and then pick the geniuses from that list of losers. That is a task to which I think I would be equal.
And to bring the waning enthusiasm about MacArthur Fellowships full circle, a rising number of MacArthur Fellows themselves reject the ermine robes of greatness the prize bestows on them. “The one thing we universally despise about the award is that it is called the ‘genius award,’” University of California at Berkeley journalism professor Jon Else, a 1988 winner, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. Sharon Long, a 1992 winner who is a professor of biology at Stanford, recalled that another winner, fellow scientist Ira Hershkowitz, stood up at the biennial MacArthur Fellows convention and declared, “We all have to work together to get the press to stop calling this the ‘genius award.’” Being declared a “genius,” added University of California at Berkeley statistician Peter Bickel, “was a burden from the beginning….Luckily, as I get older and no one remembers I had a MacArthur, it becomes less important.” University of California at San Francisco virologist Joseph DiRisi, a 2004 MacArthur Fellow, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005 that “you have to deal with a lot of ‘genius jokes.’ Anything you do that’s not right—like having trouble turning on a projector—you get the remarks, ‘What’s wrong, genius?’…It never ends. Nobody thinks it’s old or tired.”
There have been two major studies of MacArthur Fellowships under Socolow’s tenure. The first, a January 2005 report written by Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Mark Scheffler, examined the records of the 31 authors who had won fellowships between 1981 and 2005. Although a few fellowships, particularly those to Cormac McCarthy and Richard Powers, went to younger writers who wrote many novels after receiving their fellowship, Scheffler observed that “88 percent of the MacArthur recipients wrote their greatest works before being recognized by the Chicago-based foundation. The sheer number of books produced by the writers declined too, after their MacArthur awards.”
In her 1992 New York Times survey of the MacArthur Fellows Program, Anne Matthews found that 5 percent suffered “extended creative block,” including more than one occasional claim that the prize resulted in “award-related stresses [that] led to mental or physical illness.” But she also found that the typical MacArthur winner—an older, well-credentialed white male Ivy League professor good at self-promotion and winning grants—simply took the fellowship, added it to his savings account, and went back to work. “Oh, 20 years ago I might have gone to Paris to write,” one MacArthur winner told Matthews, “but now I have a cat and a dog and kids in school and a wife who works. The windfall is going for college tuitions and high-return CDs. All right, maybe a patio.”
Elizabeth Venant of the Los Angeles Times also found that the MacArthur Fellowship “has not redirected the work or lives of most winners with full-time university jobs.” Most of these scholars used the MacArthur Fellowship to fund an IRA, pay for college tuition, or pay down their mortgages.
The MacArthur Fellows Program, having been around for about 30 years, is now a permanent fixture rather than a revolutionary idea in philanthropy. Its future can be foreseen with some precision. It is likely that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the fellows will be professors, nonprofit employees, or government scientists with full-time jobs; and that these happily employed fellows, while grateful that the foundation dramatically increases their wealth, will not use the fellowship to quit their jobs or change their careers.
And given the track record, it is unlikely that the thousand mysterious mandarins who nominate potential fellows, selflessly donating their time with no thought of using their nomination to advance their careers, reward friends, or punish foes, will ever unearth an unknown Einstein or Michelangelo.
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