Campus’ Disappearing White Males: The MacArthur Awards

Next to the Nobel Prizes, possibly the most prestigious and lucrative awards given to American academics are the annual so-called “genius” awards from the MacArthur Foundation. Last week, the foundation announced 25 awards, totaling well over $15 million. I found it curious that only three (12%) of those recognitions went to white or Asian males, a demographic group that still constitutes a solid majority of the population of established American scholars. In marked contrast, the seven new Nobel laureates announced at the time of this writing are all white or Asian males.

Of the 25 awards, 14 went to men, and 11 to women, a ratio not wildly out of line with gender proportions in the American academic community or with the gender distribution of talent and promise. Looking at race and ethnicity, however, one finds striking results. A majority (eight) of the male winners were black, which is especially striking considering that the black male professoriate is dramatically smaller than the white.

There is another group even more numerically underrepresented: Asians in general, and especially Asian males. I read the biographies of all 25 winners, and while there was an Asian female, poet Don Mee Choi, it appears that there was not a single Asian male. While it is theoretically possible that this sort of ethnic/racial mix could have occurred by chance in a competition based strictly on merit (measured by past accomplishment or perceived likely future accomplishment), the probability is nearly infinitesimally small. More plausible, it seems to me, is that the MacArthur folks want to make a statement, showing their support and concern for underrepresented groups in the American scholarly and artistic community. Perhaps some of the MacArthur board or staff believe that white males are too often oppressors wallowing in privilege, needing to be brought down a notch, and also that Asian males are too much of a model minority to deserve major recognition. That may be too harsh, but it is certainly not inconsistent with the data.

I am struck by a comment my undergraduate student assistant Braden Colegrove made to me recently, suggesting that white males are not much liked by the academic community—it is a rather hostile environment, he says. That explains why so many men are now staying away from college, and why we likely will soon pass a landmark where there are 50% more women on campus than men. Given the diversity police on some campuses, this is probably not surprising. It is not uncommon, for example, to require that search committees for new professors must have women members—they generally do not also say that “males must be included.” Often when American universities reject a black job applicant, they must justify that decision to a powerful academic diversity, inclusion, and equity bureaucracy.

Following the universities’ lead, much of American society has become obsessed with biological attributes like skin coloration and gender, and has downplayed traditional American beliefs that advancement should be based on merit—productivity enhanced by hard work, special talents, discipline, and integrity. The turn away from merit-based admissions examinations like the SAT is another manifestation of this trend. Is the day coming where we will select college students by lottery using race-based quotas?

Ironically, the man who funded the MacArthur Foundation’s expansive philanthropy was  John D. MacArthur, who himself through hard work and sacrifice realized the American Dream by going from relative poverty at the beginning of the Great Depression to great wealth through adroit investments and management in insurance and Florida real estate. He was conservative politically, putting right-wing radio commentator Paul Harvey on the first foundation board of directors. But Mr. MacArthur put no constraints on the foundation’s spending, and partly because of a largely disinherited liberal son and board member, the foundation moved staunchly to the left. I suspect that Mr. MacArthur, who died in 1978, would be quite chagrined at how his money is being used today.

It is this “donor be damned” attitude of some foundations, and also of universities, that is leading some wealthy benefactors to severely constrain the use of their funds. Several foundations that have supported me over the years (e.g., the Earhart Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation) have used up their capital and dissolved.  The late Dan Searle, a friend and financial supporter of mine, decided that he could trust family members and a close associate to honor his intent for 15 years, but then wanted the Searle Freedom Trust to dissolve because the unknown next generation of leaders simply could not be trusted. That happens on December 31, 2025. By doing this, he avoided “the MacArthur problem.”


Image: geralt, Public Domain

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder teaches at Ohio University and is the author of "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today."

9 thoughts on “Campus’ Disappearing White Males: The MacArthur Awards

  1. I do not recall MacArthur awards as ever being strictly academic, and the press labeled them genius, not the foundation. I have always had the sense they went to artists and activists, not specifically to those of a particular ethnicity. Where comes the entitlement, grievance follows. Would MacArthur be distressed by this? Perhaps so if he saw the world as self starters and their opposite. Yet, if there is one thing the awardees all have in common it is sweat, not genius.

  2. MacArthurs include not a single Asian male?
    I’m my experience, Asian males are more workers than whiners, so…

  3. I’m a white male academic, and I know I certainly don’t deserve such an award. But I have known friends who are top notch. Some are white, some black, some Asian, some from all over. Should it matter what their ethnicity? Good people, brilliant minds. Shouldn’t that matter?

    As to foundations, those who don’t earn something will always focus on their own desires. And because foundation members are always chosen from the same set, you end up with people who don’t dare go against the spirit of the age for fear of not being invited to the right parties and right events. The ones that should be on the boards are the types who helped the founder earn their wealth. But, that wouldn’t work in our divided world.

  4. Females, on average, have lower math ability than males. Males tend to favor STEM fields (except the biological sciences which really have zero math requirments). Since females are becoming more and more numerous on campus, it is no surprise that degree programs in womens studies, race grevience studies and ethnic studies have grown. Only goverment agencies value such degrees; private industry for the most part considers them absolutely useless.

    1. Patti,

      There is evidence that women are better able to identify nuances of difference, particulary visually.

      That’s a valuability in the life sciences which lack the structure of math and specs.

      1. There are no studies that show females are equal to, let alone better than, males when it comes to spatial reasoning*. There are studies that suggest spatial reasoning is almost as important as math ability for success in non-biological STEM fields.

        * A typical question on a spatial reasoning test is to show a 3D object and then ask which of four other 3D objects is a rotated version of the first object.

  5. If we are to achieve equity, it will require different standards for different people. It should surprise no one anymore that the approach of Ibram X. Kendi is winning the day. When a professor is demonized for an unwillingness to grade according to the the color of a student’s skin, that “dream” has been clearly relegated to the dustbin of history. We have a POTUS candidate, who is now the POTUS, who made no secret that the color and gender would be determining factors in his choice of VP. THIS is what the U.S. has come to….

    1. HARRISON BERGERON by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

      THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal
      before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter
      than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was
      stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the
      211th, 212th, and 213 th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing
      vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

      Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for
      instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in
      that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-
      year-old son, Harrison, away.

      It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very
      hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t
      think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his
      intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his
      ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a
      government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would
      send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair
      advantage of their brains.

      George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s
      cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.

      On the television screen were ballerinas.

      A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits
      from a burglar alarm.

      “That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

      “Huh” said George.

      ***

      You can find the entire & tragic tale here: https://archive.org/stream/HarrisonBergeron/Harrison%20Bergeron_djvu.txt

      Written 60 years before its time. At the rate we’re going, we’ll be there by year end.

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