Interview conducted and condensed by Jeff Bailey
You spent 21 years in diplomacy, mostly at the State Department, and 13 at Georgetown’s foreign-service school. Then the presidency of the $5 billion MacArthur Foundation was offered to you. It’s like being named a MacArthur genius grantee times 10,000. How did it happen?
A search firm came to me. I went on MacArthur’s website and spent some time looking at the breadth of the areas in which the foundation makes grants. And I was stunned. I was really, really interested. Who wouldn’t be excited?
Yes, breadth. John MacArthur ran a hodgepodge business empire—insurance, banking, real estate, media—and the foundation he left behind is just as diffuse. Businesses, and some foundations, have been narrowing focus of late to do one or two things well. But reading your list of grantees, it seems a mile wide and—hopefully not—an inch deep.
If you’re diffuse at all, you’re too diffuse. I don’t see us as diffuse. I see us as having areas of work, broken into separate pieces but generally mutually supportive. And more and more we will synergize.
Just reading some of your past grantees starting with letters A, B, and C, the range is mind boggling: sex ed in Nigeria; climate change’s impact on mountain gorillas, the Maldives, and Madagascar; reducing murder in Chicago; back-channel dialogue with China and North Korea; better universities in Siberia! Good God, man, even with 167 on staff, can you possibly be any good at so many things?
There are areas of work where we are clearly winding down. Higher education in Russia. That’s winding down. But conservation—that is to me a perfectly appropriate area for us. Species preservation—we’re pretty well known in that area.
But can you be good at all those things?
You’re asking the wrong question. “What is your impact?”—that is the question you want to ask.
OK, I’m handing you a list [by the Council on Foundations] of great grants made by American philanthropists. Carnegie begat public libraries. The Commonwealth Fund brought forward the Pap smear. The Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation funded the polio vaccine. Does MacArthur have something that will make that list?
What will we be known for? I’ll tell you: digital media and learning insights—young people are learning differently. If we make a leap with our work, that will be extraordinary. Our juvenile justice work—the question of mass incarceration.
Genius grants end up being your best-known program, even though it’s only $12 million out of $300 million you give away each year. Last I heard, little to nothing was done to track whether your fellows’ contributions to society were enhanced by the $500,000 over five years. Seems a high-class version of me handing a fiver to some bum on the street, eh?
One of the first assessments we will pursue with the new director of assessments [Gallucci is hiring one to measure impact] will be the fellows program, which, I want to add, I very much like. I believe it to be worthwhile. [But] I am not happy that the foundation is known, mistakenly, only for the fellows program.
Photograph: Bob Stefko