John Palfrey Named New MacArthur President
March 5, 2019 | Press Release

John Palfrey, a respected educator, author, legal scholar, and innovator with expertise in how new media is changing learning, education, and other institutions, will serve as the sixth President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, effective September 1, MacArthur Board Chairman Dan Huttenlocher announced today. Since 2012, Palfrey has served as Head of School for Phillips Academy Andover.

“Throughout his career, John 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,” said Huttenlocher, who is Dean and Vice Provost at Cornell Tech and the incoming inaugural Dean of MIT Schwarzman College of Computing.

“I am an optimist, who believes that creativity, rigor, and selective disruption can make outsized social impact possible."

“I am honored to lead the MacArthur Foundation during such a critical time, when challenges facing people and our planet can seem insurmountable, but the tools of social change are evolving to be even more powerful,” said Palfrey. “I am an optimist, who believes that creativity, rigor, and selective disruption can make outsized social impact possible. I look forward to working with MacArthur’s talented and dedicated Board, staff, and grantees in Chicago, across the nation, and around the world.”

Palfrey has extensive experience making social change, spanning the education, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors. Under his leadership, Phillips Academy Andover is the only school of its kind with entirely need-blind admissions. During his tenure, the number of faculty members of color has doubled, and the student body has grown more diverse. He oversaw the creation of the Tang Institute at Andover, which seeks to reform and democratize excellent teaching and learning.

Before coming to Phillips Academy, he served as 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. Palfrey is the author or co-author of nine books, most focused on new media and learning, 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.

In the nonprofit sector, Palfrey was Executive Director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society from 2002 to 2008, when it received MacArthur support. 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.

He brings significant philanthropy experience to his new role at MacArthur. Since 2014, he has been Board Chairman at 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. Knight has assets of approximately $2.5 billion and pays out approximately $125 million in grants annually. He joined the Knight Board in 2011.  He served as a judge for the inaugural round of MacArthur’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. 

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

“I applaud the selection of John Palfrey as the next President of the MacArthur Foundation,” said current MacArthur President Julia Stasch, who announced in September of 2018 that she would leave the Foundation this year.  “He is a thoughtful scholar and visionary innovator who is deeply committed to MacArthur’s values. Our staff, our grantees, and the issues in which we are investing will all benefit from his experience and leadership.” 

During her tenure as President, Stasch focused the Foundation on fewer programs to free up resources and enable deeper impact. She launched Big Bets, significant and urgent investments to achieve transformative change in areas of profound concern, including over-incarceration and climate change. 

She also led the creation of 100&Change, a global competition for a single $100 million grant to enable real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time. A second round of the competition was announced last week. Stasch will serve as Chair of the Board for Lever for Change, a new, MacArthur-supported nonprofit bringing philanthropists and organizations or collaborations with high impact, vetted solutions together to drive formidable change to address the world’s most pressing issues. The organization was created based on insights gained from 100&Change.

Palfrey, 46, is married to his college sweetheart, Catherine Carter. They have two children and a dog. The family will move to Chicago this summer.

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