Culture Magazine

MacArthur Fellowship Update 2014: Still Favoring Elite Institutions

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Last year I wrote a series of posts on the MacArthur Fellowship Program (tagged “MacArthurFP” on New Savanna) in which I argued that they should stop giving out grants to people with university gigs. Why? Because those people have an income and can function; they don’t need MacArthur money to maintain a baseline level of functioning. MacArthur money would foster more innovation by going to people without that basic financial security.
Well, they’re at it again. They’ve just announced the 2014 fellows. There’s 21 fellows in all, of which I score 11 at university (or similar) gigs, and 10 non-university. That makes a majority of university gigs: 52%. Call that the cop-out ratio. The cop-out ratio for 2014 was 63%: 24 fellows, with 15 at university gigs. So the Foundation is moving in the right direction. Who knows, maybe next year the cop-out ratio will drop below 50%.
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Here’s the Foundation’s page for the current class:
Here’s the NYTimes article: MacArthur Awards Go to 21 Diverse Fellows.
Here’s how I scored the current class (phrases from the NYTimes article):
University Gigs:
  • Danielle S. Bassett, 32, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Terrance Hayes, 42, a poet and writing professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
  • Jennifer L. Eberhardt, 49, a social psychologist at Stanford University.
  • Sarah Deer, 41, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
  • Tami Bond, 50, an environmental engineer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
  • Craig Gentry, 41, a computer scientist at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
  • Mark Hersam, 39, a materials scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
  • Jacob Lurie, 36, a mathematician at Harvard.
  • Khaled Mattawa, 50, a translator and poet at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • Tara Zahra, 38, a historian of modern Europe at the University of Chicago.
  • Yitang Zhang, 59, a mathematician at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Non-University Gigs:
  • Ai-jen Poo, 40, a labor organizer in Chicago.
  • John Henneberger, 59, a housing advocate in Austin, Tex.
  • Jonathan Rapping, 48, president and founder of Gideon’s Promise in Atlanta, which teaches public defenders to be more effective.
  • Mary L. Bonauto, 53, a civil rights lawyer with the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston.
  • Rick Lowe, 53, who was trained as a painter but founded Project Row Houses in Houston.
  • Steve Coleman, 57, a composer and alto saxophonist in Allentown, Pa..
  • Joshua Oppenheimer, 39, a documentary filmmaker in Copenhagen.
  • Samuel D. Hunter, 33, a New Yorker and the author of a widely produced 2012 play, “The Whale.”
  • Alison Bechdel, 54, a cartoonist and graphic memoirist in Bolton, Vt.
  • Pamela O. Long, 71, [is] a historian of science and technology in Washington.
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I gathered last year’s posts into a working paper, The Genius Chronicles: Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before? (download HERE). The abstract:
This is an informal evaluation of the MacArthur Fellowship Program, the so-called "genius grants." I argue that the program functions basically as a PR vehicle for the MacArthur Foundation and for the foundation world in general. I also suggest that it could achieve better results by not awarding grants to people who already have jobs at elite institutions. There are discussions of how talent is evaluated, the cultural factors in genius, accounts of three elite institutions (Johns Hopkins, RPI, and SUNY Buffalo), and discussions of Louis Armstrong, John von Neumann, and Richard Feynman.

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