Why Are There No MacArthur Geniuses From the South?

News and views from academia.
Sept. 27 2013 1:35 PM

Why Are There No MacArthur Geniuses From the South?

The selection process is mysterious—and may be operating in a vacuum.

Carrie Mae Weems, 2013 MacArthur Fellow.
Carrie Mae Weems, photographer and video artist, 2013 MacArthur Fellow. Doesn't live in the South.

Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Well, turns out that for another year, I’m not a genius. I suspected as much, but not receiving a call from the MacArthur Foundation naming me one of its 2013 Fellows pretty much confirms it.

The “genius” label isn’t actually something the foundation embraces. It was tagged on the first class of MacArthur Fellows in 1981 by the media, and it managed to stick for completely unsurprising reasons, since the diversity of fellows (art, dance, literature, chemistry, biology, astrophysics, music, psychology, etc.) doesn’t lend itself to a handy designation as to what these people are being chosen for. Genius seems to fit about as well as anything.

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I’m a fan of the program. There are always a couple of literary writers on the list, and lord knows we can use the support. So I’m looking at the list and trying to understand why I haven’t yet been chosen as a MacArthur Fellow, and a few things are standing out.

1.      I haven’t done anything worthy of being chosen as a MacArthur Fellow. Often, the most obvious answer is the correct one.

2.      I’m getting too old to be a genius. Of this year’s class, more than half are either exactly my age (43) or younger.

3.      I live and work in the South.

Not even one of this year’s 24 fellows lives below the Mason-Dixon Line. New York has nine, California six, and the only “exotic” place of origin is Anchorage, Alaska, where Margaret Stock, an immigration and national security attorney, is based. In 2012, there was a similar trend, with heavy concentrations of fellows from the coasts: New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Natalie Almada, a documentary filmmaker, is stationed in Mexico City, but no one is from the South. Among the 2011 fellows, there are three from Cambridge (Harvard). The only southern state represented is North Carolina, in the person of Kevin Guskiewicz, a sports medicine researcher at UNC. The 2010 class has one fellow from the South, Elizabeth Turk, a sculptor from Atlanta; investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger is the only fellow from the South in the 2009 class.

Scrolling back through every year, the story is pretty much the same: Sometimes zero, and at most two, of the fellows come from Southern states. I think it’s worth asking why.

There’s an obvious theory: It’s possible that less innovative work is being done in the South, and therefore the people living and working here are less deserving of consideration and awards. New York and California are, by a huge margin, the most represented states in the list of fellows, which makes sense given that they’re our two biggest and most culturally influential population centers.

But Texas is also a pretty big place, with lots of people doing lots of different things, and there isn’t a single MacArthur Fellow from there that I can identify, at least going back to 2009. (I encourage people to check my work on that front.)

Maybe the reason is in the MacArthur Foundation’s selection process. As outlined on the website:

Each year, the MacArthur Fellows Program invites new nominators on the basis of their expertise, accomplishments, and breadth of experience. They are encouraged to nominate the most creative people they know within their field and beyond. Nominators are chosen from as broad a range of fields and areas of interest as possible. At any given time, there are usually more than one hundred active nominators.

Nominations are subsequently investigated and evaluated by an “Independent Selection Committee of about a dozen leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities professions, and for-profit and nonprofit communities.” The final selections are made by the president and board of directors of the foundation from the committee’s recommendations.

Aside from the president and board, we have no idea who the people involved in the selection process are. Nominators, evaluators, and selectors are granted anonymity and their correspondence is kept confidential so they can “provide their honest impressions independent of outside influence.”

Maybe this is a clue as to the lack of representation of people living and working in the South. Perhaps the nominators come from the circle of people who have been chosen as MacArthur Fellows, or as previous nominators. Certainly, one expects lots of people at Harvard to be doing genius-like things, but it appears to be significantly easier for the geniuses at Harvard to be noticed, perhaps because it’s others from that same circle who are doing the noticing.

I don’t write this out of some sense of wounded southern pride. While I’ve lived in the South for 13 years, culturally, I’ll always identify as a Midwesterner, as a Chicagoan. Chicago happens to be the location of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, so I’ve always felt a kind of hometown pride in the good work they do.

But having now lived in the South for more than a decade, I recognize the feeling that many natives express—that they’re being discounted or ignored, that the cultural movers and shakers don’t even care to know what’s going on here. I don’t share and have no wish to fuel any resentment, but looking at the lack of representation on this list of “geniuses” of people doing their work in the South, I understand where it comes from.

I’m certain the MacArthur Foundation is not acting out of either deliberate or even unconscious malice. The MacArthur Foundation does indisputable good and we should be grateful that they have the desire and resources to grant $625,000 each to 24 people who deserve it.

But this question lingers. What’s wrong with the South? Where are our geniuses?

We don’t know the names on that nomination list, and I don’t think the MacArthur Foundation should tell us, but maybe they should take a look and see who and what these people represent, and how broadly they’re really searching for their geniuses.

John Warner writes the Just Visiting blog for Inside Higher Ed.

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