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Are You A Genius?

What does it take to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award? The foundation (which officially rejects the “genius” label in favor of the “MacArthur Fellows Program”) tells us that these “unrestricted” fellowships are awarded to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” This leaves a lot of space for subjectivity, but we are also told that there are three specific selection criteria: “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.” Now you are clear, right?

The program was initiated 1981 shortly after the foundation opened its doors. It has always been a separate and rather special MacArthur program, since its purposes are not clearly related to the Foundation’s major programmatic themes. The selection process has always been a bit mysterious. The Web site says that “nominations 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.” This is the group originally called “spotters,” and I should confess upfront that I was a spotter for several years in the 1980s—although at least at that time I was not aware that I was a member of a committee, since I was never told who the other spotters were. It may be different these days. Then, the Web site says, the selection committee (after a complicated process) makes recommendations to the president and the foundation’s board of directors, who choose 20 to 30 fellows each year. Perhaps, but at least in the early days, the “committee” had no input other than the spotter’s original nomination. My impression (which may well have been erroneous) was that the director of the fellowship program was the most consequential actor in the selection process. But the process was not transparent enough for me to judge whether that was correct—then or now.

The foundation has now selected 828 fellows, and these days each fellow recieves a stipend of $500,000 (“paid in equal quarterly installments over five years”). There are “no strings attached” to the fellowships—no requirements or performance reports. Each fall the newspapers compete with one another to publicize the “genius” awards, which each recipient learns about through a surprise telephone call. If this reminds you of the Nobel Prize process, it should. About every five years the New York Times calls me to ask what I think of the fellows program. I suppose this is both because I am a scholar of philanthropy—and because I have been consistently critical of the program as philanthropically unjustifiable.

Why should I feel this way? I am a great admirer of the foundation, and have been connected to it, and to successive foundation presidents, for many years. On the whole, and certainly right now, I think the foundation is admirably managed. But in my view successful foundation programs need to have clear goals related to the overall goals of the foundation that are susceptible to some sort of reasonable evaluation. The goals of the fellowship program have been more or less consistent over the years, but the program itself has been quite differently administered over time. Sometimes there has been a greater emphasis on academic prowess, at others on artistic creativity and, less frequently, on social entrepreneurship. The quotient of political correctness has also varied, becoming more self-evident in recent years. I have no objection to any of these criteria in themselves, but they are wildly subjective, and I don’t think the program has produced a clear public impression of what “genius” is. Nor do I think that the awards have normally produced the sought-for creativity beyond what these talented individuals would have produced without foundation recognition and support.

Look at this year’s list to see what I mean. I am not going to try to analyze it in detail, but let me give a couple of obvious examples of fellows who do not seem to me to make much sense, given the foundation’s criteria. The clearest case is that of David Simon, a TV writer-producer of “Homicide,” “The Wire” and “Treme”. According to the Washington Post, Mr. Simon was clearly thrown by the news that he had been selected: “while I think storytelling is a meaningful way to spend your life . . . it does feel a little bit secondary or off-point.” Mr. Simon is clearly creative and incredibly successful. Will he be more creative and productive henceforth?

An analagous case would be my friend Annette Gordon-Reed, one of the best-known and most successful American legal historians in the country. Annette’s last book won every prize offered in the United States, and she has just moved to the Harvard Law School. I love and admire Annette, but no more now than before she was declared a genius. I could give other examples of people who do not need the award because they are already rich and famous. But of course there are several I have never heard of, including a “third-generation stone carver” (does the generation matter to his creativity?), a well-known New York theater director, and a bunch of promising young academics. These are great folks, so far as I can tell, but will they (or anyone else) actually be inspired by these awards? Permit me to doubt it.

The philanthropy scholar in me wonders whether the foundation money spent on these 23 “geniuses” over the next five years ($11,500,000 not counting administrative expenses) could not have been spent in a manner more consistent with the aims of the foundation? Could not the total cost of the program since 1981 have been better invested philanthropically? I think it could have been.

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