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The MacArthur Selection Process

October 27, 1985|DICK ADLER

How can you apply for a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship? You can't. Unlike most grants and prizes, the "Genius Awards" go to people who aren't even aware that they are being considered. Several of this year's winners remember hearing that people had been making inquiries about them or were asking for references. Still, as they thought, the questions might have been asked by anyone from anywhere, from the FBI to Diners Club.

Kenneth Hope, director of the fellowship program, says that initial recommendations are made by a group of about 100 people scattered across the country. These deliberately anonymous talent scouts, who take a vow of silence, are paid an honorarium of $1,000 a year to bring worthy candidates to the attention of the MacArthur Foundation.

The final choices for the five-year awards are then made by an equally secret election committee of 13 to 15 people from a wide variety of backgrounds--chosen, as Hope explains, "as much for their ability to make decisions about people as for their particular expertise in a given field." Since members of this committee meet at the foundation's headquarters in Chicago once a month and have to sift through a sizable number of candidates, their compensation is more than $1,000 a year--but Hope won't say how much more.

So what can would-be fellows who knows exactly how to spend five years' worth of tax-free income do to bring their work to the attention of a foundation talent scout? Judging from the list of past and present winners, the best advice would be not to hide your achievements. Write a book, get some media attention, win an international prize--and above everything else, make sure that you're a legitimate genius.

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