MacArthur Fellows boss on genius, creativity

 Cecilia A. Conrad

Cecilia A. Conrad leads the MacArthur Fellows program. (Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune / September 2, 2014)

Cecilia A. Conrad joined the MacArthur Foundation in January 2013, but the process of selecting that year's fellows was already underway.

Thus this year's class represents the first that Conrad has shepherded from start to finish. In addition, it has been up to her to implement an internal review that was launched in 2012 and, among other things, upped the prize to $625,000 from $500,000.

Conrad, 59, came to MacArthur from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., where she joined the economics faculty in 1995. She later served as associate dean, vice president for academic affairs, dean and acting president.

We asked Conrad, vice president of the MacArthur Foundation who leads the Fellows Program, for her thoughts on the enterprise, popularly dubbed the "genius grants." Here is an edited transcript.

Q: What are you trying to achieve at MacArthur?

A: One of the things we learned in last year's program review was the potential for the fellows program to have impact beyond the fellows, to inspire others. We learned that people who were familiar with the program reported that it inspired them to pursue their own creative pursuits or to think about how they could contribute to society.

I'd like to magnify, compound, multiply that effect by making more people aware of the program, by getting knowledge of the program, knowledge of the fellows out to a wider audience.

Q: Why should people care about the fellowships?

A: Each year, when we announce that mix of people, if you see something about one of those fellows that you can personally identify with, I think it makes you far more interested in reading about the fellows and far more likely to say, "Hmmm, maybe I could do something like this too." The fellows program has historically always tried to represent the depth and breadth of American creativity, and I'm trying to push that even further.

Q: What else are you trying to accomplish?

A: The fellows indicated a desire to have more connection with each other and with the foundation. We are planning a fellows forum, so we're getting together a large group of fellows from across classes. And one of the things fellows have told me in my conversations is that these even sometimes spark new ideas, new collaborations.

Q: How do you feel about the process of selecting fellows, in which evaluators secretly assess candidates?

A: One of the things that our review showed was that we've done a good job of finding very creative people, that there's some recognition that the people we've found are creative and innovative and so forth.

The one piece of the process that's not so much of a change, but one that you always work on, is making sure you get a broad pool of nominations. We look for people who are in situations where they may be able to spot the new idea, the really creative person that no one else has spotted yet. We look for people who are thought leaders, who are influentials.

Q: What do you hope for the fellows program's future?

I grew up in Dallas, Texas. When I got this job, my mother had never heard of this. My cousins had never heard of this. So one of my goals is that when my cousin goes to get his haircut, that in the barbershop the class of fellows will be part of the conversation.

Q: What did you learn from the recent study the program conducted on the mobility of MacArthur Fellows?

A: What we find is that fellows come from all over, they're born all over the place, they live all over the place. As one might guess, there are concentrations in New York and California. But then you have to ask, what is it that makes fellows concentrate there?

We find that fellows are more mobile than the rest of the population. They move. It's interesting to speculate about why they move and what are the factors. Some of those are probably economic, some of those are social. It raises some provocative things to think about.

Q: Are there misconceptions about the fellowships?

A: There are some misconceptions. We'll start with the notion of genius versus creativity. While I know it sounds semantic, I have found from talking to people (that) when they think about genius, it tends to make them think of people who've already accomplished a lot. And so they've already earned this social label of "genius."

And one of the things about these fellowships is we're frequently looking for people on the precipice of something really big. Because we want the fellowship to enable them to take the next step. So that's important. I think people sometimes (misperceive) this as an award for past accomplishment when it's really speculative. We're betting on you.

Q: How do you feel about the term "genius grant"?

A: Well, I'd say it's sort of a love-hate relationship. As I mentioned, it can mislead people as to what we're about. On the other hand, it has grabbed hold of the popular consciousness, and that's why it shows up on "Big Bang Theory" (TV show), and I'm not going to knock the publicity.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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