Jacob Soll has told this story so many times, he almost sounds removed from it.
Not bored, or jaded really. But detached — like it happened to a friend of a friend. Or he read about it in a book, and is a little incredulous.
“It was like Oliver Twist or something,” he says. “I was the lowest paid professor at my university. My roof was falling in, pipes were exploding. When I got the call, I was literally walking to the library in the rain, thinking about how ruined I was.”
It was fall 2011, and the MacArthur Foundation had just named the historian to its fellowship program, an honor that came with a no-strings-attached prize of $500,000 and a mighty boost of career-changing prestige.
Like every good rags to riches story, Soll made a speedy U-turn. The prize, colloquially called a “genius grant,” instantly elevated his professional status. He got a big salary bump, fixed his leaky roof, and threw himself into his work with renewed purpose — selling a proposal for his book on financial accountability, “The Reckoning,” soon after.
“The MacArthur changed everything,” Soll said after returning from a recent meeting with Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister of Greece, on the country’s debt crisis. “Absolutely everything.”
Today, the MacArthur foundation announced its newest batch of fellows — a 24-person list that includes a diverse set of new winners from a variety of different fields. The class of 2017 includes playwright Annie Baker, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, computer scientist Regina Barzilay, musician Rhiannon Giddens, Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Princeton psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck.
Since 1981, the Chicago-based organization has awarded close to 1,000 of these prizes to a revolving roster of the most influential people in art (Kara Walker, Lin-Manuel Miranda); academia (Amos Tversky, Angela Duckworth); literature (David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz), and science (Sally Temple, Peter Huybers), among other fields.
Drawn from a foundation started by the philanthropists John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, the fellowship has changed some in its decades-long tenure (today, it’s worth $625,000, paid out quarterly over a period of five years). But it’s still one of the most notoriously tight-lipped prizes in the world; winners are nominated anonymously by a secret panel of sorts and announced every fall with little fanfare. There’s no splashy awards ceremony or four-course meal. And the driving idea, to give fellows no-strings support to spend their time, money, and mental real estate however they choose, is the same as it’s always been.
This year, though, the prize comes with a little extra oomph.
This past spring, President Donald Trump and his administration released their 2018 budget proposal that would make debilitating cuts to federally-funded art, academic, and science programs. Among them: the National Arts and Humanities Endowments, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Science Foundation.
With wide swaths of public grant money now facing extinction, competition for private funding will only heat up. And the MacArthur Grant, one of the only no-strings attached prizes in the world, will be more coveted than ever.
“The MacArthur gives you permission to take risks,” says Ruth Behar, a 1988 fellow. “Once you’re blessed in that way, it’s hard to imagine what your life would have been without it.”
Behar, an anthropologist born in Havana and raised in New York, was working on a research project in Mexquitic, a tiny town in Mexico, when she learned she’d won the fellowship. Only one telephone existed there with a notoriously unreliable owner, so it took nearly two weeks to get the news.