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John Palfrey

Incoming President

Portrait of John Palfrey


John Palfrey will become President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on September 1, 2019. 

He is a well-respected educator, author, legal scholar, and innovator with expertise in how new media is changing learning, education, and other institutions. Throughout his career, Palfrey has demonstrated a commitment to rigorous thinking, disruption, and creative solutions often made possible by technology, accessibility of information, and diversity and inclusion; all have long been institutional values central to MacArthur’s identity and work. 

Palfrey has extensive experience in social change spanning the education, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors. 

Since 2012, he has served as Head of School at Phillips Academy Andover, the only school of its kind to maintain need-blind admissions. During his tenure, the number of faculty members of color doubled, and the student body grew more diverse. He oversaw the creation of the Tang Institute at Andover, which seeks to reform and democratize excellent teaching and learning.

Previously, he was the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School. In that role, he expanded the Library’s reach and services, finding innovative ways to use digital technologies to enhance the school’s scholarship and teaching.

He served as Executive Director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society from 2002 to 2008. The organization seeks to explore and understand cyberspace. He was the founding board chair of the Digital Public Library of America, which leverages technology to help ensure that knowledge and information are broadly accessible to all for free. And he served as board chair at LRNG, a nonprofit launched and supported by MacArthur, which aims to help close the equity gap by transforming how young people access and experience learning and connect to the world of work.

Palfrey has published extensively on how young people learn in a digital era, as well as the effects of new technologies on society at large. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education; Born Digital: How Children Grow Up in a Digital Age; and BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google.

Palfrey is chair of the board of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which seeks to foster informed and engaged communities with a deep focus on transforming journalism in the digital age. He serves on the board of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Boston Athenaeum, and MIT Press.

Prior to joining MacArthur, he served as a judge for the inaugural round of the Foundation’s 100&Change competition, as a member of the confidential MacArthur Fellows Selection Committee, and as a member of the Foundation’s Science Advisory Committee. 

Earlier in his career, Palfrey practiced law at Ropes & Gray in Boston. He was a visiting professor at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland during the 2007–2008 academic year. He also served as a special assistant at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton Administration.

Palfrey holds a JD from Harvard Law School, an MPhil from the University of Cambridge, and an AB from Harvard College.

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