MacArthur Fellowships: Let the Geniuses Free

9 Oct

I’ve been following the MacArthur Fellowship program from the beginning. Like many, I’ve thought it too conservative in its pick of fellows. I long ago decided that the foundation could improve matters by adopting a simple rule: don’t award fellowships to anyone who has stable employment at an elite institution.

My reasoning was simple: if they’ve got an elite job, they can eat and they can work. Depending on the job, they may not have as much time for creative work as they’d like to have. But they’ve got more time than they’d have if they had to wait tables, do temp word-processing, or teach five adjunct courses a term spread across three different schools. They can function creatively.

That puts them ahead those who are so busy scratching for a living that they cannot function creatively at all.

When I set out to write this post, that’s all I had in mind. I’d reiterate the standard complaint about MacArthur’s programmatic constipation, with appropriate links here and there, and then offer up my one simple suggestion. I figured it for a thousand or maybe fifteen hundred words.

But then things started getting interesting, and more complex. So I’ve had to write a much longer post. I’ve not given up on that simple idea, nor have I augmented it. But I have a richer and more interesting rationale for it. That’s what this post is about.

The Genius Grants

I don’t know when I first heard that the newly formed Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation would “be looking for gifted but impecunious poets, promising young composers, research scientists in midcareer and other ‘exceptionally talented people’”, as The New York Times put it in 1980, but, like many creative people, I thought to myself: At last, a foundation that’s looking for (people like) me. The article went on to say:

Many foundation programs have sought to assist scholars and artists…but most have required that the would-be fellows already have achieved some public recognition. Unlike most others, the new fellowships will permit the recipients to choose entirely new fields of interest, with no requirement that the fellowship lead to the completion of a project, publication, or even a progress report.

Just what I need, thought I to myself, just what I need. It would allow me to blow this pop stand and get some real work done.

As Roderick MacArthur, son of the foundation’s benefactor, John D. MacArthur, would put it in 1981:

“This program,” Mr. MacArthur said, “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.”

My name wasn’t on that list or on any subsequent list.

Nor, I tentatively decided in that first year, was the foundation deeply interested in people like me, people whose work did not fit into conventional categories and thus would be ineligible for conventional foundation largesse. Rather, given the foundation’s actual practice, it is clear that the MacArthur Fellows Program has been funding pretty much the same people funded by every other foundation and government agency.

The major distinguishing characteristic of a MacArthur Fellowship is that you don’t have to do anything to justify the funding; nor, for that matter, can you actually apply for support. The support comes to you, unbidden, and once you start cashing the checks, you are under no obligation complete a stated project nor submit any reports. This is a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, but this goodness is of little comfort to those who don’t get a MacArthur Fellowship.

None of these observations are new. They’ve been made ever since the foundation began awarding the fellowships. The problem with these observations is that, assuming that the foundation really does want to identify and gift those who “boldly go where no man has gone before”; identifying those people is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.

My purpose in this post, then, is not to come up with rules and procedures so the MacArthur Foundation can go about that task the right way. I don’t think there is a right way. The task is impossible.

Rather, I want to do two things. First, I argue that the MacArthur Fellows Program functions to provide the foundation world with a cosmetic device whereby it can pat itself vigorously on the back for going boldly where none have gone before while continuing to fund the same suspects. Second, I argue that the best thing the Foundation could do at this point is simply to stop awarding fellowships to people who have secure employment at elite institutions. That’s a simple, but in view of my larger argument, no longer a simple-minded, suggestion.

What’s a Genius and How Do You Spot One?

The MacArthur Fellows program has been associated with the word “genius” almost since its inception, though the word is not part of the foundation’s official branding. But what’s a genius?

In perhaps its most pedestrian meaning, a genius is one of the people staffing the Genius Bar in an Apple retail store. Moving up a rung in pertinence, a genius is anyone who scores above a certain level on any of a number of standardized tests. In this sense “genius” is tied in with the measurement of intelligence (IQ), which implies the question: what is intelligence? This is a controversial, messy, and interesting business, but not quite relevant to the MacArthur Foundation’s quest to hunt the wild genius.

The sense of genius I’m after is the ordinary sense, the original sense if you will, the sense that in fact drives the others. Let’s consult the wisdom of the crowd on this, that is, the Wikipedia:

A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight. There is no scientifically precise definition of genius, and the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate.

That seems more or less right, with no precise rightness in sight.

These geniuses, informally defined, are towering figures of creative invention, for example, Albert Einstein, Margaret Sanger, Pablo Picasso, the Marx Brothers, Josephine Baker, Walt Disney, Igor Stravinsky, Sigmund Freud, Virginia Wolfe, and so forth (confining the list to the 20th Century). These geniuses plant the seeds from which subsequent artistic, intellectual, and social practices grow.

Presumably those are the people the MacArthur Foundation was seeking to gift, and it was set on identifying them before their seeds had born much, if any, fruit. And that’s the problem. How do you judge?

If you’re looking for the world’s fastest sprinter, you run a race and see who wins. The criterion for judging is straightforward. That is not the case in physics, poetry, community organizing, or any other pursuit for which MacArthurs have been or should be awarded. You judge a person’s accomplishment in such matters by examining their work in relation to existing relevant work. If it’s like some of that work, then they’re not a genius. Though their work might be very excellent indeed, they aren’t breaking new ground.

If, however, their work is obviously different, now we’ve got something to think about. And what we’ve got to think about is whether or not the work will prove to be solid, lasting, and seminal, or whether it will prove to be the unsubstantial contraption of a crank. How do you make THAT call?

It’s difficult enough to make such a judgment in a field you know through your own direct participation in it. But how do you make such a judgment in a field to which you are a stranger? For that, in the end, is how the call is made.

According to the foundation, the nominees are “evaluated by an independent Selection Committee composed of about a dozen leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities professions, and for-profit and nonprofit communities.” The committee members cannot possibly expert in all the areas covered by the nominees. They have to trust the assorted judgements of a rather large funnel of people who make the original nominations, supply information, evaluate, winnow, and so forth. At the large end of the funnel the original nominators (over 100 in any year) nominate 2000 candidates. At the small end of the funnel we have that selection committee of “about a dozen leaders”. In between, a plethora of judgments by staff and others.

Think again, then, about how this goes. The best, but rare, situation faced by anyone in this funnel is that they are evaluating non-standard work in a field they know well. Most of the time, however, any given winnower will be faced with work in a field they don’t know well enough even to judge whether or not the work is standard or innovative. How can such a process possibly work?

I further note that whole process is based on the premise that, whatever genius IS, it is lodged in certain people, and only certain people, as an essence. I question that. I think there IS a genius phenomenon, but that it lies in the relationship between a gifted individuals and the world. When an individual’s gifts meet a need in the world, magic can happen. We need to facilitate the matching process. We can’t do that by selecting the same kinds of people to fit the same kinds of holes.

An engineer whose gifts fit well with the needs of an emerging world moving toward internal combustion engines is not going to be selected by a committee whose members commute to work by horse and buggy. You can monkey with the committee’s rules and procedures all you want, but as long as they live in a horse and buggy world they’re not going to see genius in any internal combustion engineer.

That, in effect, is the situation we face. The world is changing, but the elites of the foundation world are looking to the past, not the future.

Three Examples from the First Class

Let’s look at three somewhat different examples from the Fellowship Program’s first year. Twenty-one fellows were announced in May of 1981 and twenty more were announced in November. In discussing these cases I have the advantage of hindsight that the original selection committee could not have had.

Let’s start with an easy call, Robert Penn Warren. FAIL.

At 76 he was the oldest member of that first class and something of a flagship. He’d won pretty near every literary prize except the Nobel, including three Pulitzers, one for fiction and two for poetry, making him the only person ever to win for both fiction and poetry. He was cofounder of The Southern Review, had written textbooks that had seen decades of use in undergraduate literature courses, and had one of his novels, All the King’s Men, made into a major Hollywood movie. It won an Oscar back in 1949.

It’s hard to imagine a more thoroughly established man of letters than Robert Penn Warren. Maybe he was bleeding edge and interdisciplinary in 1935, but not in 1981. By then his pioneering days were long gone. No, the committee who gave this distinguished man a MacArthur either didn’t have a clue about creativity or knew it well enough and didn’t approve of it.

Henry Louis Gates (aka Skip) is a tougher call. In 1981 he was a rising star in African-American studies and an assistant professor at Yale. He’s now Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and his CV is 29 pages long, including over a page of honorary degrees. It’s hard to imagine a more distinguished member of the academy.

But is he, has he proven to be, a “genius”?

He’s written a lot, and I’d guess that his non-academic page count exceeds his academic page count, though I’ve not actually attempted the count. The page count, in whatever category, is at best secondary. It’s the idea count, and the depth of those ideas, that matters.

I’ve read a number of his articles, and I’ve read his major scholarly work, The Signifying Monkey (1989). It is of course excellent work. But it is also thoroughly of its time and ethos, and that ethos is fading. It does not change how we think about literature in any deep way; it does not lay the foundations of new methods of analysis and explanation. If we had to justify that MacArthur on the basis of Gates’ ideas, then I’d say it hasn’t been proved out.

But that’s not all he’s done. He used the MacArthur money in part to go digging through the archives, where he discovered a heretofore-unrecognized African-American novel, Our Nig (1859), by Harriet E. Wilson. I’ve read, though can offer no citation, that Gates regards that discovery as justification for his MacArthur.

Perhaps so. If he’d discovered that on a Guggenheim I’d say, sure, no problem; the money’s justified. But Guggenheims have been around since 1925 and exist in the world of conventional and established philanthropy. The MacArthur Fellowships were supposed to be more venturesome. So again, and alas, thumbs down.

There’s still more. Gates has done quite a bit of popular work, essays, books, op-eds, TV and film, and is an institution builder. In and of itself I’d say it’s not enough. We’ve seen this before.

But what happens when you put all of this together, the ideas, the archival work, and the entrepreneurship? Does it add up to “genius”? My right hand wants to say “no” but my left hand hesitates. So I’m going to straddle the fence on Skip Gates.

Will the third time be a charm? No one’s ever accused Steve Wolfram of being charming. Arrogant and abrasive, yes, charming, no. But is he brilliant and creative?

At 21, he was the youngest member of that MacArthur class. He also had a doctorate in physics and was on the faculty at the California Institute of Technology. He’s best known for two things, his work in complexity, including his controversial door-stopper, A New Kind of Science (2002, full text online), and Mathematica, a computer program for sophisticated mathematical manipulation that is in wide use.

I own and have read much of A New Kind of Science, but am not in a position to have a serious opinion on whether or not this is indeed a new kind of science. I find it interesting and provocative in various ways (e.g. the idea of computational irreducibility); but it doesn’t come close enough to my core interests (culture, its description, and its neural implementation) for me to get a handle on it. But I admire the scope of his vision. Yes, it’s hubristic; but someone, sometime, has got to take a crack at it, no? On the whole I’m inclined to think that someone who kicks up that much dust of that kind, that person is doing something right even if I don’t understand it.

As for Mathematica, it’s a practical tool that’s proven useful to enough people to have made Wolfram a wealthy man. It’s the income from that software that’s given Wolfram the leisure and resources to do the research he stuffed into that book.

So yes, between his ideas about mathematics and physics and his software, I think Wolfram’s proved out his MacArthur. Robert Penn Warren was a no-go from the start, a blast from the horse-and-buggy past. While Skip Gates has two or more decades ahead of him (he’s not yet 65), I think he’s pretty much done what he can do. Still, it’s possible that he’ll pull a rabbit out of the hat and enter unambiguously into the world of internal combustion engines and lighter than air travel. As for Wolfram, rumor has it that he thinks we can land a person on the moon within the decade.

What the “Paper of Record” Says

In 1983 The New York Times published a long article that was generally about the Foundation, mostly about financial matters, but that also included some remarks about the fellows program:

The program has been praised but also criticized, partly because many awards went to individuals with records of accomplishment rather than to undiscovered young talent. Gerald Freund, a former Rockefeller Foundation official, joined the Chicago philanthropy as vice president to organize and carry out the program but gave up its direction in June 1982, “because my vision of it seemed beyond realization.”

Some excellent results were achieved in the first years, he said. But the selections included few artists, women or young people, and “most genuine mavericks lost out,” he added. “Sources of candidacies were overly narrow and in-depth research by staff was thwarted,” he asserted.

Dr. Corbally [president of the foundation] said the idea of risking large sums [large? really?] on a young and untested candidate had troubled some officials but added, “It doesn’t bother me at all.” He said the foundation might consider another range of smaller awards to meet this need.

That’s the crux of the matter, does the foundation risk money on people who may not pan out, but who may also succeed in spectacular and unexpected ways, or does it go with people is most likely will pan out in predictable ways?

In 1992 Anne Matthews published a full-dress review of the program in the New York Times Magazine, The MacArthur Truffle Hunt. One of the topics: what do the fellows DO with the money? In many cases, not much:

Asking for a list of major literary works, musical achievements, crusading policy reports or scientific breakthroughs achieved with MacArthur-bought freedom is a fast way to start many fellows hyperventilating. In fact, most winners simply hire a crack investment counselor…. For winners already equipped with healthy incomes as well as access to grant funds larger than any MacArthur, the MacArthur means status, not survival. “Oh, 20 years ago I might have gone to Paris to write,” admits one scholar, wistfully, “but now I have a cat and a dog and kids in school and a wife who works. This windfall is going for college tuitions and high-return CD’s.” He thinks a moment. “All right, maybe a patio.”

The verdict on the fellows themselves is, predictably, mixed:

ASKED TO ANALYZE THE MacArthur roster of talented individuals, some observers of the nonprofit realm leap to praise. “Thrilling.” “Enormously important.” “Lots more diverse and progressive lately.” “Finally getting away from academics.”

Others savage. “Constipated.” “Safe.” “Revoltingly chichi.” “Survival of the blandest.” “Kafkaesque.” “A godlike search for geniuses under rocks.” “The usual suspects, plus the very famous and the very weird.”

Here’s a comment from the within Foundation that we’ll return to:

Overall, MacArthurs seem to favor creative people from the Northeast (of the 350 fellows, 121 live in the Northeast or New England). Questioned about this, Ken Hope, the program director, sighs. “We’re trying for a redefinition of creativity here, a fracturing of national perceptions of value. It takes a while. But we’ve also been trying hard for nominators and selectors very definitely from nonelite institutions, or from outside the academic world altogether, representing the U.S. better in terms of race, place and gender.”

That was two decades ago. Has the fellows program since managed to get outside the world of elite academic institutions?

To Break the Wild Genius

What’s going on? In thinking about the Fellows program we have to move beyond thinking about a small group of people making decisions about grants to benefit another small group of people. Each person in these two small groups is at the center of a social network that extends through 10s and 100s of other individuals in many different institutions, with these institutions also acting among one another as institutions. The annual list of Fellows is the net product of tens of thousands of interactions in these interlinked networks and those interactions extending back in time for years and decades.

For lack of a better term I’ll call this network The Elito-Meritocracy, capital “T”, capital “E”, capital “M”. I suppose I can abbreviate that as ThEM.

I suggest that the institutions that dominate ThEM – other philanthropies, colleges and universities, research institutes, media (the newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio shows that report and comment on the program), and corporations – have collectively decided that the Fellows program is to be in the genius business, and so have tasked staffers in ThEM institutions to figure out what genius is and how to harness and control it. Think about it: if it were really possible to spot geniuses before their innovations have been accepted, wouldn’t that be grand? Yes, it would, but, as far as I can tell, that’s not possible.

What IS possible is to spin a story around that quest that allows this institutional world to come out smelling like a rose.

That 1992 New York Times “truffle hunt” article tells us that “officials at other foundations”, that is, other individuals in ThEM, these officials “note the MacArthur fellows program has never really decided if its job is to reward creativity or to stimulate it, if it wants to be an American Nobel Prize or a fairy godmother to talents unappreciated by mainstream society.” Just WHAT is the genius business anyhow?

That article also points out that

MacArthur is the youngest of the country’s top foundations – the Rockefeller, Ford and Mellon foundations, the Getty Trust, the Pew Memorial Trust – and, in its early days, the brashest.

John D. MacArthur (1897-1978), son of a Pennsylvania hellfire preacher, was an eighth-grade dropout who created the mail-order insurance firm of Bankers Life and Casualty during the Depression and built a Florida real estate empire. At the time of his death, he was one of two billionaires in the United States.

Puckish and aggressively eccentric, MacArthur lived for years in a Palm Beach Shores hotel, running his business from its coffee shop and reputedly saying, at the close of each deal, “Pay for your coffee on the way out.” Largely to confound the Internal Revenue Service, he endowed his foundation with five million shares of Bankers Life stock but left the board of trustees no instructions. He had made the money; now they could figure out how to spend it – thus making the MacArthur the only top-rank foundation to be created without a focused giving agenda.

So, this brash young foundation comes swashbuckling its way into ThEM‘s walnut paneled clubroom and has to be brought to heel. It must be tamed. Well, why not let it have its way with that Fellows program and see if it can in fact tame the wild genius? But, be careful about the packaging.

Let’s turn, once again, to one of the prime ThEM institutions, its paper of record. A 1997 New York Times article offers a most interesting observation:

There are at least a few observers who question the very concept of the fellows program. Some of them, including Waldemar Nielsen, a consultant to foundations and a former foundation official, maintain that its primary job is to generate publicity for the foundation.

The late Waldemar Nielsen (he died in 2005) had directed major programs for the Ford Foundation, had been president of the African-American Institute, had written extensively about foundations, and “deemed them generally timid, inert and unimaginative”.

I don’t know what Nielsen was thinking that he made that remark, what his reasoning was, but I find it interesting and plausible. First, we need to remember that the MacArthur Foundation is a large foundation and that the fellows program is only one of its many programs, a relatively small one. In 2012 the foundation’s total budget was $212.2 million of which the fellows program was $11.8 million, or just under 6%. The program is small enough that the foundation can treat it as an overhead expense, as publicity if you will.

Note that Nielsen’s reading is plausible even if no one at the MacArthur Foundation asserts, believes, or even thinks that publicity is the point. It does generate publicity, lots of it. I’d guess the foundation gets more publicity for that program than for all of its other programs combined. How many people who know about the fellows program can name even one of the other programs? And, I would argue, it’s the publicity that keeps the process going. That publicity is the latent goal of the program, not its manifest goal, which is to fund exceptional individuals, to fund “geniuses”.

Now, let’s move beyond thinking of the program simply as publicity for the MacArthur Foundation itself. Surely some of that public relations glow accrues to The Elito-Meritocracy in general, to the whole network of individuals and institutions that coughs up this list once a year. The list is produced in the name of The Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, but it validates the philanthropic activities of ThEM as a whole simply because it’s the single most visible foundation program in the country. In rhetorical terms, it’s a synecdoche, a part that stands for the whole.

Think of the MacArthur Fellows Program as a tax imposed on this brash young foundation by the older and more established members of ThEM. But the tax isn’t so much the money the Foundation puts into the program, but how it distributes that money.

Putting Lipstick on the Pig

With that in mind, let’s look at some current public relations generated by the foundation and then at the current class of fellows.

Consider this passage from the foundation’s review of its fellows program:

From the outset, the founders of the Program saw the potential for broader impact, beyond the recipient Fellows, including:

  • Providing inspiration for those who aspire to contribute something new and valuable to the larger society
  • Capturing the public’s imagination by shining the spotlight on exemplars who collectively demonstrate that creativity can be found everywhere among us, often in unexpected or unrecognized places

Note that this broader impact doesn’t depend on the abilities and actual accomplishments of the fellows. All that matters is the people believe in those abilities and accomplishments.

I am not suggesting that the foundation is engaged in a deliberate deception. I assume that the staff of the foundation works hard and honestly and that everyone associated with the fellows Program does the best they can. But I also believe that the job they’ve set themselves, finding geniuses, is somewhere between very difficult and impossible.

Their belief in the program is thus unwarranted, as is ours. Hence much of the negative criticism the program has attracted over the years. So, how can the foundation defuse, or at least diffuse, that criticism?

Let’s look at a recent piece by, Cecilia A. Conrad, the current director of the Fellows Program. In Five Myths About the MacArthur ‘Genius Grants’ she says:

Fellows come from every field of human endeavor, from theoretical physics to urban farming.

Many Fellows, like sports-medicine researcher Kevin Guskiewicz (2011), are engaged in highly practical work. Guskiewiczis making advances in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of concussions….Some Fellows, like Rosanne Haggerty (2001), address pressing social issues — in her case, providing housing for homeless individuals and families.

So, the fellows do good things that benefit you and me. And they don’t all come from elite institutions:

Also, the success of the program cannot be measured solely by individual outcomes. We bring attention to many overlooked fields, such as blacksmithing (Tom Joyce, 2003) and bowmaking for stringed instruments (Benoît Rolland, 2012), typography (Matthew Carter, 2010) and ornithology (Richard Prum, 2009), language preservation (Jessie Little Doe Baird, 2010) and elder rights (Marie-Therese Connolly, 2011).

Now, how does The New York Times spin its story of the most recent class? Two-thirds of the fellows, 16 out of 24, are on staff at elite institutions:

  • Columbia University (Donald Antrim)
  • Bard College (Jeremy Denk)
  • Mannes College (Jeremy Denk)
  • University of Pennsylvania (Angela Duckworth)
  • Stanford University (Kevin Boyce, David Lobell)
  • Scripps Research Institute (Phil Baran)
  • California Institute of Technology (Colin Camerer)
  • Cornell University (Craig Fennie)
  • Boston College (Robin Fleming)
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Carl Haber)
  • Massachusetts Institutes of Technology (Dina Katabi, Sara Seager,)
  • Rutgers University (Julie Livingston)
  • University of Michigan (Susan Murphy)
  • Weill Cornell Medical College (Sheila Nirenberg)
  • University of Colorado (Maria Rey)

The article was written in such a way, however, as to deemphasize those elite connections. Thirteen of those sixteen were simply listed in two paragraphs at the end of the article: name, occupation, institution; name, occupation, institution; repeat until done. The article devoted three opening paragraphs to “dancer-choreographer Kyle Abraham, who recalled relying on food stamps just three years ago”. A bit later it gave a paragraph to Vijay Iyer, a jazz pianist and composer (who, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, will be joining the Harvard faculty in 2014), and two paragraphs to Karen Russell, a fiction writer.

The article is thus written to give more space to and more information about “outsiders” to the world of elite institutions. That is a more interesting story than one about elite institutions once again getting most of the marbles. The latter story is routine business and genius is NOT supposed to be routine. Genius is about the exceptional. So emphasize the exceptions rather than then norm.

But what’s exceptional about these particular fellows is that they are NOT on staff at an elite institution, at ThEM. They appear to have come out of nowhere. Hence, they must be geniuses, no?

Well, maybe yes, maybe no. No one really knows, not about them, or about the majority of fellows who do come from elite institutions. All we know is that it looks good; it looks innovative. It smells like genius. And that’s all that matters for PR purposes.

Throw Caution to the Winds

What can we do about this game? Probably nothing, but if we had the power to change it, how should we go about it?

As I said at the beginning, I’d suggest simple rule: no fellowships will be awarded to people with stable jobs at elite institutions.

Let me explain.

I am familiar with elite institutions. I did my undergraduate work at The Johns Hopkins University and my graduate work in the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo. At the time I was there, the mid-1970s, the SUNY Buffalo department was one of the best in the nation. I was on the faculty of The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Faculty members at these institutions are all good, for the standards ARE high. In practice that means that there is a fair amount of high-class dead wood among the live wires. Some of the MacArthur Fellows at such places probably deserve an award intended to promote exceptional and paradigm-breaking ability. Others do not.

And while some of the best people at these places are quite happy there, others are not, and it’s not because they’re inherently unhappy people. It’s because these institutions are not uniformly conducive to boldly going off into the unknown. They are more likely to prefer that you dot your i’s and cross your t’s on fundable grant proposals.

Thus some of the MacArthurs going to these people are going where they should be going and some among them are going to those who need the respite that money can bring. I’m also sure that some of the recipients don’t deserve. But I don’t want to try to sort this out.

My simple rule follows from a very simple bottom line consideration: the bottom line. If you’ve got a job at a elite institution, then you’ve got an income. You don’t need a MacArthur to survive and to do your work. You may not be able to do your work in the style you’d like, but you CAN do the work. You don’t have to scrabble for a living at a job that’s unrelated to your interests.

That’s one factor behind the rule.

And, yes, I know that some important work cannot be done without the kinds of facilities and staff you have at major research institutions. You aren’t going to find any particle physicists doing their research on their own time while working as a bike messenger or more comfortably as a quant at a hedge fund. This simple rule will be biased in its effects. But then, a MacArthur wouldn’t be all that useful to a particle physicist anyhow. It would buy a MacBook Air to take to conferences and it would pay for printer cartridges and page charges. But it won’t build a new instrument to put into whatever atom smasher you’ve bought time on.

So be it. The current system is also biased in its effect, and not in the right direction, not in favor of boldness. Boldness is merely a convenient and desirable by-product. It’s not the goal.

Let’s recall Waldemar Nielsen’s observation the goal of the MacArthur Fellows program is publicity. The aim of my simple rule is to change the valence of that publicity. How will it do that?

First of all, once the decision is announced, I would expect a series of articles about that decision. That is, more publicity. Just what those articles would say, I cannot predict. What will the elite institutions say? What will MacArthur Fellows at those institutions say? I assume that some will lodge complaints, but just how those complaints will be framed, I cannot say.

Nor can I imagine how the first full class of outsiders will be greeted. Sure, there’s going to be some praise, and some vilification. How will that be divided between the foundation and the individual fellows?

To the extent that the fellows program has evolved into a device the philanthropic system uses to validate its basic integrity – we’re not just gifting our friends and neighbors here; we’re going for real quality – I’d expect the criticism to be loud and bitter: What’s the world coming to? The sky is falling and MacArthur’s lost its way looking for four-leaf clovers! Now system’s cover is blown and the players are naked to the world, like that old emperor without any clothes.

This rule change will not, however, interfere with Harvard’s ability to tout all the MacArthur Fellows on its faculty, or with the ability of those faculty members to proudly strut their MacArthur stuff. But over time the linkage between MacArthur’s and ThEM institutions will weaken.

That weakening cuts two ways. On the one hand, the MacArthur Foundation depends on ThEM to validate its selections. In effect, by placing a minority of outsider Fellows in a majority of insiders, it’s using the institutional linkage of those insiders to validate its outsiders (even as it is using those same outsiders to disguise its basic commitment to insiders). That support will be gone.

But how much does that moral support, if you will, really matter? If the MacArthur Foundation were small and the fellow’s program its only program, or one of only three or four of a similar size, then the loss of support from other foundations would be consequential. But, as I pointed out above, that’s not at all the case. The fellows program is a relatively small one. And the foundation as a whole now has a long and, I assume (for, like most who know about the fellows program, I don’t know much about the foundation’s other work), substantial record of doing good work.

No, the foundation should be able to support a full slate of “outsider” fellows on its own. If so, would that then encourage a bit more daring from other foundations or even, Heaven forefend!, the National Science Foundation? Would it encourage elite institutions to be less elite and more venturesome?

Who knows?

How would this rule change affect the selection process itself? I assume that some people, staff, nominators, and evaluators, would abandon the program. They’d have to be replaced by others happier with the new direction. Everyone would have to think a bit harder and a bit differently about what they’re doing. Maybe things would loosen up, get more interesting.

Again, who knows?

It’s a New World

In the Medieval West the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life. Then the West underwent a massive cultural change, the Renaissance, and new life ways and new institutions emerged. A new system of colleges and universities supplanted the church as the central institution of intellectual life. That system served us well up through the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century.

But the world is once again changing. And this time it’s not the West alone that’s undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the whole world, kicking and screaming.

The Elito-Meritocratic system is intertwined with and sits atop institutions grounded in the 19th Century. It’s too tightly wound about those moribund institutions. If we’re going to a New World, then let’s go for it.

If that old system is to properly serve the emerging worlds, it needs to loosen up. Until that happens the details of specific procedures for selecting MacArthur Fellows don’t matter. It’s the overall attitude and goals that count.

The object of my simple rule – no Fellowships for members of elite institutions – is to loosen things at the top and see what happens.


4 Responses to “MacArthur Fellowships: Let the Geniuses Free”

  1. Ray Woodcock March 23, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    Good work! I’ve cited this post in my own comment on the MacArthur Fellowships.


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