MacArthur “Genius” Grants—Left Activists Still Big Winners

In the mid-1990s, the MacArthur Fellows Program, commonly referred to as the “genius grants,” appeared to be captured by the multicultural, race-and-gender left.  But the program director that embraced the radical left, Catharine Stimpson, left the MacArthur Foundation in 1996 after only four years.  Her successor, Daniel Socolow, severely restricted the fellowships going to liberal activists.In 2013 Socolow retired.  His successor, Cecilia Conrad, has just released the first list of fellowships under her control.  But while Stimpson was unapologetic about her agenda, Conrad is far more secretive, and awards to the race-and-gender left are back.

Picking Tenured Professors

From its origins in 1981, the MacArthur Fellows program has been one that largely favors tenured professors, many of whom hold endowed chairs.  Often, the foundation favored the Ivy League.  Seven of the fellows in the program’s first two years, for example, taught at Princeton.  By 1987, for example, the program had given so much money to Princeton that five of the school’s fellows—physicist Joseph H. Taylor, historian Robert Darnton, physicist Edward Witten, astrophysicist James Gunn, and physicist David Gross—all lived on Hartley Avenue.

While the foundation cringes at the idea that the MacArthur Fellows are the “genius grants,” the phrase accurately reflects the intentions of J. Roderick ”Rod” MacArthur, who was primarily responsible for the fellowships being created.  The first article to mention the term “genius grants” was written by Diane K. Shah in 1979, two years before the fellowships were created.   Rod MacArthur told Shah “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.”

A Rising Star

However, the evidence suggests that most MacArthur Fellowships go to professors, who happily remain on campus and put the MacArthur funds in their IRAs.  In a few cases, the MacArthur talent spotters discover rising stars.  One of the 1981 winners, for example, was Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who at the time of his MacArthur grant was a 30- year-old assistant professor of English at Yale.  Gates used the MacArthur funds to develop his craft and become one of the prominent African-American thinkers of our time.

A perennial issue concerns the difference between MacArthur grants awarded to professors in the hard sciences and those given to those in the social sciences and the humanities.  Since most scientists work in teams, what is the point of giving a large fellowship to an individual?

Most scientists are already paid for what they do and would do their work regardless of and would do their work regardless of whether or not they won the prize,” the Boston Globe’s Alison Bass reported in 1988.  Bass interviewed MIT materials scientist Heather Lechtman, who put her $236,000 MacArthur grant in her bank account.  “I would tell the MacArthur people to stop giving money to academics,” Lechtman said.  “Giving an artist five years of support would produce much more visible, lasting results.”

As for professors in the humanities and the social sciences, the evidence suggests that the program director of the MacArthur Fellows has considerable say over what sort of fellows are chosen.  In the tenure of Kenneth Hope (1982-92), the scholars selected were part of the respectable Old Left.  The 1987 winners, for example, included literary critic Irving Howe, historian Horace Freeland Judson, and sociologist William Julius Wilson.  In fact, Howe, Wilson, and another 1987 winner, educator Deborah Meier, were all contributing editors of Dissent, the venerable socialist quarterly.

Unapologetic Catherine Stimpson

Hope’s successor, Catharine Stimpson, was a strident feminist literary critic.  While one non-liberal, critic Stanley Crouch, was a winner, the multicultural race-and-gender left captured the fellowships.  Among the winners of the notorious 1995 awards were musicologist Susan McClary, who declared that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was “the throttling rage of a rapist incapable of obtaining release,” and historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, whose book The Legacy of Conquest, U.S. News and World Report columnist John Leo noted, contended that  ”the settling of the West was essentially one long spasm of greed, racism, sexism that isn’t over yet.” Leo saw the fellowships going to “low-luster laborers in the traditional vineyards of the left.”  However, Catharine Stimpson left after the 1996 awards and her successor, Daniel Socolow, chose a path of staid respectability.

Under Socolow’s tenure the MacArthur Fellows tended to be full professors, many of whom held endowed chairs.  For example, 10 of the 23 fellowships awarded in 2010 went to professors, including three to holders of endowed chairs.  How could a MacArthur Fellowship enrich the life of Emmanuel Saez, E. Morris Cox Professor of Economics at the University of California (Berkeley)?  Or Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of history at the Harvard Law School and Carol R. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study?  Does anyone outside of MacArthur headquarters think that full professors at the Harvard Law School are underpaid?

Daniel Socolow retired and was succeeded by Cecilia Conrad, an African-American and an economist at Pomona College, where she briefly served as acting president.

Conrad’s professional specialty is the economic struggles of African-Americans in general and African-American women in particular. In a 2008 article in The American Prospect, she noted the problems black women have in making a living.  This is part of the article’s conclusion:

…black women suffer from not only the burden of their own employment obstacles but also from the lack of economic security among black men and this third burden, as economist and college president Julianne Malveaux recently observed, is ‘why African-American women cannot separate interests of race and issues of gender in analysis of political candidates, economic realities, or social and cultural realities…

If the 2014 awards are any indication, Cecilia Conrad is as committed to “interests of race” and “interests of gender” as Catharine Stimpson was.  The commitment to universities continues in the 2014 awards, with ten of the 21 awards given to professors, including seven full professors, two associate professors, and one assistant professor.  None of the professors this year hold endowed chairs.

However, the awards to political activists that largely disappeared under Socolow’s tenure have now come back, with at least six of the 21 engaging in multicultural causes.  These include:

  • Mary L. Bonuato, director of the Civil Rights Project at the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and a lecturer at the Harvard Law School, a ley organizer in the gay-marriage movement and the effort to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act;
  •  John Henneberger, founder and director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service and a successful lobbyist in increasing the amount of subsidized housing in that state;
  • Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, whose goal is to organize and ultimately unionize housekeepers, cleaners, and caregivers.

The two multiculturalists among the professors winning grants are Sarah Deer, a Native American “legal scholar and advocate” at the William Mitchell College of Law  who specialized in protecting Native American women against sexual assault, and Jennifer Eberhardt, an African-American and a psychologist at Stanford  “investigating the subtle, complex, largely unconscious yet deeply ingrained ways that individuals racially code and categorize people, with a particular focus on associations between race and crime.”

The difference between Catharine Stimpson and Cecilia Conrad is that Stimpson was unapologetic about her goals while Conrad has not been asked about her political agenda.  Instead, she offers vague, anodyne comments about how the goal of the MacArthur Fellowships is to encourage creativity.  She told the Chicago Tribune that she hoped her cousins going to a barbershop in Dallas would chat about the fellows as their hair was being cut.

Cecilia Conrad should be asked:  What are your political goals in awarding the MacArthur Fellowships?  And if you won’t answer this first question, please tell us what are you trying to hide?


  • Martin Morse Wooster

    Martin Morse Wooster is a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center and the author of Great Philanthropic Mistakes, published by the Hudson Institute.

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