In addition to filling an open faculty line in international relations (IR), I was hired in 1991 by the University of Louisville with the idea that I would eventually direct the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The World Order award was then one of four Grawemeyer Awards and at the time I was hired, I knew virtually nothing about any of them. The prize was worth $150,000, making it the largest award in Political Science. Nonetheless, it was not especially well-known even within the discipline, nor much publicized outside of it, though the earliest prizes were awarded to prominent IR scholars and Political Scientists like Samuel Huntington, Robert Jervis, Robert Keohane and Richard Neustadt.
The annual awards in Education and Religion were also relatively unknown. The award in Music Composition, however, apparently became a major global award and typically receives media coverage in the New York Times and other global outlets. The award amount eventually increased to $200,000 (though it decreased after the 2008 stock market dip) and a fifth award in Psychology was added in 2001. Sporadically, awards other than Music Composition have received a modicum of publicity.
The World Order Award winner received a great deal of publicity in 1994 when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Louisville to speak and collect his payment. Though this selection occurred just before I assumed leadership of the World Order Award, I recall that most of the coverage concerned his missing pants — truly. While I have never believed that the lack of media interest in the World Order winners reflected anything in particular about the field or the winning ideas, it can be frustrating laboring in relative obscurity. Many people reading this post have perhaps reviewed for the award in the past — and I know that many had never really heard about the prize until I asked them to read for it.
In any case, there are clearly far worse fates than being unknown to the wider world. Earlier this year, on April 14 — after months of delay and behind-the-scenes negotiation — the Education winner for 2011 was announced: Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea.
Was this the academic equivalent of the Grammy award for Milli Vanilli?
A few days later, “60 Minutes” ran the famous story questioning his honesty, humanitarianism, and research integrity. A couple of days after that story broke, best-selling author Jon Krakauer published a digital book slamming Mortenson for lying and losing “his moral bearings.”
Needless to say, this created a publicity nightmare for the University of Louisville and for my colleagues in the School of Education, who administer the prize. Time magazine ran a piece detailing the trouble and the story of the university’s apparent gaffe made more news than most of the awards ever have.
This weekend, roughly one week before Mortenson was scheduled to visit Louisville, speak, and collect his prize, the University announced that Mortenson had decided not to accept the award.
“We, like millions of others, have been inspired by Greg’s work and we share his commitment to education and to his belief that we can provide a more peaceful future for all our children through knowledge and friendship,” [Provost Shirley] Willihnganz said.
While UofL will not give the 2011 Grawemeyer Award in Education, Willihnganz said the university will provide $50,000 in privately funded scholarships (unrelated to the Grawemeyer endowment) to students who decide to major in education and agree to teach in Louisville’s poorest schools.
I have watched this affair unfold with both a sense of distance and uncomfortable proximity. Most of what I know about the Mortenson case has been learned by reading the newspapers and press releases. Each of the awards is quite distinct and I rarely see the faculty involved in the other awards — Psychology is a bit of an exception since it is part of Arts & Sciences. However, Education, Music, and Religion are located in completely different colleges within the University organizational chart.**
For months, people in Louisville and fellow scholars have asked me about Mortenson because they assume my involvement in World Order grants me access to the inside scoop. That is not the case.
Over the years, as you might expect, the World Order award has received nominations supporting fairly prominent political figures. Most of them, like Gorbachev, have baggage associated with their work even if they are best known for remarkable ideas or (more likely) for engineering dramatic political changes. Reviewers and the screening committee are supposed to focus on the nominated material, but these external issues inevitably loom in the background — and press against the foreground. I have no doubt that some ideas were considered more seriously at some steps in the multi-stage selection process precisely because they emanated from famous figures.
The Grawemeyer review process involves nearly a full year of hard work to select a single work — and awarding the prize to a well-known figure can bring immediate attention to the entire effort. I do not believe that the Education committee selected Mortenson because of his name recognition. However, I do think that the selection serves as a cautionary tale for anyone involved in the review process. It could be read, in fact, as another point in favor of blind review.
Before closing, I should note that I resigned my position directing the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World order in the spring, effective June 30, 2011. Our department chair had announced his intention to depart for another university, the faculty elected (and the Dean selected) me to succeed him, and I had a one semester sabbatical coming in fall 2011 that I did not want to interrupt. It seemed like a good time for a transition. As it happens, the chair of our Political Science department serves on the Final Selection Committee for the World Order award, meaning that I will again have some important Grawemeyer duties in fall of 2012.
** Correction/note: The Religion award is administered by a University faculty committee in conjuction with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The long-time coordinator of the award, Susan R. Garrett, holds a faculty position at the Seminary.