Former Harvard Law School professor John Palfrey is the new head of the MacArthur Foundation.

Former Harvard Law School professor John Palfrey assumed the role of president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation earlier this month.

Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

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Alumnus and former law professor John Palfrey takes over the MacArthur Foundation

In March, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced it had named John Palfrey ’94, J.D. ’01, its sixth president. In addition to earning degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Law School (HLS), (as well as a master’s of philosophy from the University of Cambridge,) Palfrey served as the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law and vice dean for Library and Information Resources at HLS, and as executive director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society from 2002 to 2008. He was head of school at Phillips Academy Andover from 2012 to 2019 and has served as board chairman at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation since 2014. The Gazette spoke with Palfrey on the Andover campus last spring about his Harvard time and about his new role (which began Sept. 1) leading an organization that is dedicated to helping solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. 


John Palfrey

GAZETTE: What made you want to take this job?

Palfrey: I think the MacArthur Foundation plays an iconic role in the intellectual, social, and political life of the United States, and so the opportunity to help lead it in this next phase seemed like an amazing privilege. A large part of it, of course, is the ability to help do good in the world on a large scale. One of the things that the MacArthur Foundation does, among other large foundations, is to explore how to make an impact on a broader scale than ever before by learning from the way in which we support creative people and great institutions through philanthropy.

GAZETTE: Do you have goals for the foundation?

Palfrey: I’m excited to learn more about what the staff and trustees feel has been working well. One of the interesting things in philanthropy right now is the deep work around assessment and trying to make sure that things that we have invested in are actually working in the way that we intend. That’s similar to the world of education today and the focus on institutional research and assessment. I am eager to learn what MacArthur has learned about the impact of its philanthropy. The MacArthur Foundation is probably best known for its Fellows Program, which has had a huge impact on creative, artistic, and cultural life in America. In its overall grant making over the last few years, the MacArthur Foundation has decided to focus on a few big bets and large enduring commitments rather than many smaller bets in terms of the problems to tackle. I look forward to learning how they feel that transition has gone, concentrating on big bets rather than taking on a broader field of activity. MacArthur also has launched an initiative called 100&Change in which it held a competition for a single grant of $100 million dollars to solve a critical problem of our time, in this instance related to educating the children displaced by unrest in the Middle East. MacArthur has built on the learnings from that competition and created a fascinating nonprofit affiliate called Lever for Change, which will run competitions for other philanthropists, so there is a big opportunity to build on success there. It’s also a long-time leader in impact investing on a big scale. You could imagine the debate. One might say: “there are so many problems in the world and we are going to try to take them all on in a small way or put a small amount of money toward a large number of problems.” Alternately, one might say: “let’s take on fewer commitments for a longer period of time with a larger commitment of money.” Now, whether that means only making larger grants or doing something that’s a mix, that I think is something to explore further and on which I look forward to getting much smarter.

Former Harvard Law School professor John Palfrey i
John Palfrey in his former office at Phillips Academy Andover.

GAZETTE: It reminds me of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has focused its efforts in certain areas including infectious diseases and K-12 education in the United States.

Palfrey: I think a number of foundations have made similar pivots in the last several years to say, “We are going to be really, really good at doing this one thing or these couple of things.” I look forward to exploring how the MacArthur Foundation can build on its successful efforts at partnering with other foundations and the large number of others who are trying to solve a common problem. So, for example, the MacArthur Foundation is not the only institution working on criminal justice, but rather does so in partnership with others. Those kinds of models strike me as the right way forward in general.

GAZETTE: Could you ever have imagined leading this type of organization when you were an undergraduate at Harvard?

Palfrey: I was a history and literature concentrator. When I was leaving Harvard College I was certain I was going to do a Ph.D. in American Civilization at Harvard for graduate school. I figured I should go work for a little bit and then come back to school. I went and worked in government for a couple of years and, while I was working, I looked around at the people who were doing jobs that I admired and ­— other than professors — none of them had Ph.D.’s in American Civilization.  It turned out that a lot of them were lawyers, and so I made a deal with myself. I went to Cambridge and did an M.Phil. in history, and then I went for a law degree. I got to do the historical study I wanted — although not for a Ph.D. — and a J.D. maybe for more functional reasons. It turned out I loved the law and was delighted in the end to have gone in that direction. But that I might become president of the MacArthur Foundation?  Absolutely no.

GAZETTE: What were the people doing whom you admired?

Palfrey: I admired the people who were in positions where they were leading in a way that made a difference in other people’s lives. People that come to mind include Elena Kagan, former Harvard Law School dean, today a justice on the Supreme Court, and a great lawyer and an amazing leader. I think about Martha Minow, also former dean of Harvard Law School [and a trustee of the MacArthur Foundation], who is just such a great teacher and scholar. People who are really affecting the lives of others and doing so in a way that is grounded in the kinds of values that Harvard imparts in us.

Gazette: What was the M.Phil. concentration?

Palfrey: I studied the making of the United States Constitution through the work and writings of Alexander Hamilton. I was especially interested in the way in which Hamilton was affected by the Scottish Enlightenment and other British thinkers, which was a wonderful thing to be able to study at Cambridge.

Gazette: I have to ask you if you have seen “Hamilton”?

Palfrey: Of course! I had read the Ron Chernow biography before so I knew the basis of the musical and because I had written this paper on Hamilton, I had just been deeply interested in him for a long time. So, when the musical came out I was afraid that it would be disappointing somehow and that it was over-hyped. We got to see it in New York, and it completely blew me away. It turns out it wasn’t over-hyped at all! It was so much better than I thought it was going to be.

GAZETTE: Turning back to your undergraduate time at Harvard for a minute, can you talk about the importance of a liberal arts degree?

Palfrey: A student was recently in my office asking me that exact question. He is interested in philosophy, but he is thinking about his college career and wondering about the risk of going into the humanities. I made the most impassioned plea that I could. I told him “stick with it!” I recently read that fewer than five percent of American undergraduates are concentrating in the humanities; I would have guessed 20 percent. Those single digits strike me as way too low. I am certainly a believer in STEM education; I am certainly a believer in economics and computer science and the kinds of things that have had enormous uptake recently; and I completely understand the desire to have training through your collegiate experience that prepares you for a job. At the same time, I think that the liberal arts experience — and the study of the humanities in particular — is a great way to prepare for a job and for life in general. I am afraid we will lose that in our country.

GAZETTE: How do you feel it prepared you?

Palfrey: I just think that the breadth of experience and knowledge that allows you to make good decisions comes from being pushed and stretched in the way that good teaching in the liberal arts does. There’s great power in going deep in a variety of humanistic inquiries during college.  I think that things like understanding how to code are important, and understanding how the law works is a wonderful and brilliant and interesting endeavor. But to have the grounding in the broad liberal arts that one can get as an undergraduate, strikes me as indispensable if one can manage it. It seems so self-evident that I have a hard time making the case. The grounding that comes with a liberal arts experience is particularly crucial if you want to take on complex problems.

GAZETTE: What area of law interested you at Harvard Law School?

Palfrey: I came into Harvard Law School as a student thinking there were two areas that interested me. One was the environment because I had worked at the U.S. EPA after college. The other was technology, which had been a longstanding interest of mine. At that moment there was a really great community around the topic of technology and the law, led by Charles Nesson, Jonathan Zittrain, [William] Terry Fisher, and a handful of others involved in the founding of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. It was just a super interesting time. At that point there was very little going on in environmental law at Harvard, which has come a long way since. In part, it was just an electric environment around technology and the law and the set of questions around how it was going to affect society were super interesting right from the start. Those hard questions have continued to be my area of scholarly interest.

GAZETTE: You were the executive director of the Berkman Klein Center from 2002-2008. How do you think that experience will help inform your work at the MacArthur Foundation?

Palfrey: At the Berkman Klein Center we were grantees of the MacArthur Foundation. That was certainly a way we got to know the work of the foundation and to appreciate its people and its wonderful work. The foundation supported our work exploring how young people are learning and interacting differently in the digital era, as well as our efforts to understand how internet censorship worked around the world. We worked on these topics in an international context, in a much more complex world, and seeing the way in which problems intersected with one another and trying to figure out the best way to use philanthropic funds to improve the world was so exciting. To have been a grantee trying to do that, trying to affect people’s lives directly through our work — that was hugely helpful in thinking how one would help to lead a philanthropic organization.

GAZETTE: How do you think the MacArthur Foundation can help stem rising inequality in the United States and around the world?

Palfrey: The MacArthur Foundation’s work has been focused on what it calls the “Just Imperative” and finding ways to make the world a more just place. I believe the most important issues of our time are diversity, equity, and inclusion. That is true on a small scale within organizations, or medium scale within a university community, and at the broad scale of a democracy. Figuring out how to be better at that and how to do our work in more inclusive and equitable and just ways is essential to making our democratic systems work. I feel if we can’t get that right on the smaller scale of our intentional communities, it’s going to be very, very hard to do that well at the size of a large polity.

GAZETTE: Can you talk about your efforts at Phillips Academy Andover to promote greater diversity?

Palfrey: A few of the things that we have set out to do have been very clear, including building a more diverse faculty at Andover. We’ve gone from roughly 40 faculty members of color when I arrived to about 90 today out of about 200, a very important trend. But that’s not enough. It’s not enough simply to have a more diverse community. We also have to ask: How do we ensure that we also bring equity and inclusion to all aspects of our work? That doesn’t happen except [when] virtually everybody in the community [is] committed to making that a priority, and that is certainly a work in progress at Andover, as it is in the world at large. This has been a classic team effort. You need lots of people committed to a set of goals in order to make an institution successful at promoting something as important as diversity. I’ve found that being the head of an institution is very different than being a line actor in an institution, and therefore you can’t do it yourself; you have to have a community of people who are buying into the same set of goals, the same mission.

GAZETTE: Last question. You have relocated to Chicago for your new role — will you become a Cubs fan?

Palfrey: I am through and through a Boston sports fan — that will not change! Although I will certainly adopt some Chicago teams as my “number twos,” I can’t un-become a Boston sports fan. That said, I am super excited to be in Chicago and learn about another new city. I was born in New York and have been a New Englander my whole life so this will be a broadening of my experience. It will be an adventure.