Look at articles about the MacArthur Fellows Program (commonly known as the “genius grants”) and you’ll find two categories of stories. One is where the wide-eyed hack shows up at MacArthur headquarters in Chicago full of wonder about how the selfless, noble program officers are bestowing riches among the struggling artists, who thanks to the foundation, can stop fighting the cat for food and begin to indulge in caviar and champagne. You can tell these articles because there is nearly always a reference to the long-dead television show “The Millionaire.”
Then there’s the hard-hitting reporter who decides that the MacArthur Fellows do little or nothing to advance American culture or science. Sometimes these reporters come across good information, but most of the time, as Thomas Frank does in Salon, they just rant.
Frank is famous as a champion of the left who firmly believes that the only legitimate political views in our country are from people who think like him. In his view, political discussion is impossible because anyone on the right is either stupid, evil, or a tool who fails to realize that socialism is the answer to every question.
So it’s little wonder he declares that “the only really persistent critics of the MacArthur are found on the cranky culture-war right,” and he links to two people—John Leo, who criticized the fellowship program in a 1995 syndicated column, and, well, me. I devote a chapter of my book Great Philanthropic Mistakes to the MacArthur Fellows program.
Had he actually read me—and since the chapter was reprinted in Commentary, it’s readily available—he would learn that I don’t use a “culture-war critique” to look at the MacArthur Fellows program. Instead, I look at the history of the program and how it changed over time.
Frank says he has “followed the comings and goings of the MacArthur Genius awards for most of the last two decades, and after all these years of trying to understand the program’s operations, my conclusion is that it is impossible to decipher.” Had he read my critique, he would have had a clearer understanding.
The MacArthur Foundation is institutionally irritated by the phrase “genius grants,” but the phrase accurately reflected what the creator of the grants, J. Roderick “Rod” MacArthur, wanted the grants to do. The first article to refer to the fellowships as “genius grants” was written by Diane Shah in Newsweek in 1979—two years before the fellowships program was started. There are several quotes that suggest that Rod MacArthur thought that by funding “geniuses,” all the world’s problems would be solved. In fact, there’s some evidence that Rod MacArthur tried—and failed—to make the MacArthur Fellowships the only program the MacArthur Foundation funded.
Rod MacArthur’s goals were impossible to achieve. It is my view—and I see no evidence to contradict this—that the head of the MacArthur Fellows program has a great deal of influence on how the MacArthur Fellows program is run. Under Kenneth Hope (1982-92) the foundation funded some political projects with the fellowships. His successor, Catharine Stimpson, tilted the program towards the race-and-gender left in a way that ensured the foundation became controversial.
Foundations hate controversy, so Stimpson only lasted four years. Her successor, Daniel Socolow, had the longest tenure, heading the fellows program between 1997-2013. His tenure ensured that political grants stopped.
It is my view that under the newest head of the MacArthur Fellows program, Cecilia Conrad, the foundation has once again decided to begin shoveling funds to the left. However, unlike Catharine Stimpson, who was unapologetic about her politics, Conrad, as a former college president, has learned to cloak her intentions in bafflegab.
According to an interview by Howard Reichs in the Chicago Tribune in September, Conrad said her goal was that when the program was announced, “If you see something about one of those fellows that you can personally identify with, I think it makes you far more interested in reading about the fellows and far more likely to say, ‘Hmmmm, maybe I could do something like this too.'”
When I got this job, my mother had never heard of this [the MacArthur Fellowships]. My cousins had never heard of this. So one of my goals is that when my cousin goes to get his haircut, that in the barbershop the class of fellows will be part of the conversation.
Frank describes Conrad’s comments as “one of the most evasive justifications for a large expenditure of money that I have ever read.” I agree. Here are three winners of the MacArthur Fellows program this year:
-- A civil rights lawyer “breaking down legal barriers based on sexual orientation and gender identity”
-- A social psychologist “investigating the subtle, complex, largely unconscious, yet deeply ingrained ways that individuals secretly rate and categorize people”
-- A housing advocate “building collaborations among elected officials, developers, and county officials”
I cannot imagine any barbershop—even in Madison, Brookline, or West Hollywood—where the achievements of these members of the cognitive elite would be a subject of casual conversation.
Here’s a question Howard Reich didn’t ask Cecilia Conrad, and which I guarantee no reporter will ever ask her: why do you believe that all the smart people in the U.S. are on the race-and-gender left?
P.S. I am grateful to Frank for alerting me to a 1988 article in the Chicago Tribune that was new to me about the MacArthur Fellowship awarded the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon’s agent forwarded a phone number, and Pynchon agreed to accept his prize. Fellowship director Kenneth Hope said that he didn’t ask Pynchon where he lived, “and I’d figured he’d tell me if he wanted me to know.” Because the MacArthur payments went to his agent, it didn’t matter where Pynchon lived, but the foundation decided Pynchon lived in Boston, although Catherine Ingraham, who did her doctoral dissertation on Pynchon, told the Tribune that Pynchon was actually “living somewhere in Southern California and sometimes in Mexico. Everybody knows that.”