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Extraordinary Alumnus to Lead the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

June 6, 2014

Jonathan Fanton (BA 1965, Ph.D. 1978, History) has had an extraordinary career, beginning while he was a student at Yale. In July, he will become the next president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies and a leading center for independent policy research.

Fanton will leave his current post as interim director and Franklin D. Roosevelt Visiting Fellow at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York, where he has worked for the past five years.

In announcing the appointment, Don Randel, chair of the Academy’s Board of Directors, said that Fanton “has demonstrated leadership in higher education, philanthropy, and public policy and is perfectly suited to lead the Academy both intellectually and administratively.”

Fanton became a Fellow of the Academy in 1999. Since its founding in 1780, the Academy has elected leaders from every generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century, and Margaret Meade and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners. Last month, the newest cohort was announced, and it includes eight Yale faculty members, two of whom earned degrees from the Graduate School: David Gilliam Schatz (MS 1980, Molecular Biochemistry & Biophysics), professor of immunobiology and molecular biology; and John Fabian Witt (BA 1994; JD 1999; Ph.D. 2000, History), the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School and a professor of history.*

The Academy “is far more than a list of distinguished names,” Fanton says. “It actively engages its members in studying the critical issues of our time, and is the source for substantive research” on a wide range of topics, including peace and security, energy and the environment, the future of public universities, and more.

As a Yale undergraduate, Fanton directed the Ulysses S. Grant Program, a summer enrichment program for talented, motivated inner-city students. He helped create a transitional year program for high school graduates with great potential but inadequate preparation, so they could succeed at colleges “truly commensurate with their abilities.” He received a Carnegie Teaching Fellowship and found himself leading a section of Yale freshmen the fall after his own graduation from college. The fellowship enabled him to take Graduate School seminars, and he began his doctoral studies part time.

He coordinated Yale’s Special Educational Programs (1968-70) and became special assistant to President Kingman Brewster (1970-73) during a tumultuous period in the University’s history.

Kingman was a great teacher and mentor,” he recalls. “He had vision, empathy, and courage. Yale is a much better place now for his leadership.”

Fanton went on to be executive director of Yale College Summer Programs (1973-76) and associate provost (1976-78) while pursuing his Ph.D.

I never intended to be a scholar, although I loved teaching,” he says. “I believed that a deep immersion in history was the best preparation I could have for a life of public service. And I am grateful that I did my study at a University and Graduate School which honors giving back to society.”

Fanton’s dissertation adviser was John Blum. Among his other mentors were Howard Lamar, Edmund Morgan, Gaddis Smith, and Vann Woodward. At a talk he gave in 2011 to the Association of Yale Alumni, he credited his teachers at Yale for insights that have served him well over the years. From Brewster, who headed Yale during a period of campus unrest and town-gown tension, Fanton learned that crises “can be put to good purpose.” Brewster also taught the importance of knowing “when to be decisive or be patient… Knowing where you are in the arc of history has been important to me in deciding where to invest time and effort, critical to human rights work where the problems vastly outpace the resources to intervene.” From Blum, he learned that “People can make or shape the course and turn the tide of history. This was never more useful than in Prague in 1989, when I sat with the leaders of the Velvet Revolution as they decided to press ahead against uncertain odds.” From Gaddis Smith, he learned to value the experiences of “people in conflict or who must make common cause to achieve a desired outcome,” and from Howard Lamar, that “progress is a net proposition, rarely a steady linear march.” Vann Woodward helped him understand “how to seek common ground, how to search for compromise without sacrificing core principles, and what the consequences are of strident ideology invoked with too much passion.”

Edmund Morgan emphasized that “values and principles, grounded in rigorous thinking and expressed in charter documents will make a difference over time. The international human rights movement, fortified by treaties and covenants, most notably the Universal Declaration, is a good example of how ideas can gradually change behavior.”

After leaving Yale, Fanton served as vice president for Planning at the University of Chicago, and in 1982 was inaugurated president of The New School for Social Research in New York City, which he led for 17 years. During that time he was instrumental in reconnecting The New School to its European roots by helping dissident scholars in Eastern and Central Europe.

In 1999 he became president of the MacArthur Foundation, where he worked to deepen the Foundation’s commitment to human rights and international justice, juvenile justice, affordable housing, peace and security, biodiversity conservation, and community and economic development, both in the United States and around the world.

Fanton is past chair of Human Rights Watch, where he still heads the Africa Advisory Committee. Under his leadership, they increased their involvement with Africa and Asia. He has headed the Security Council Report, the Union Square Development Corporation, and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in New York and served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. He is currently chair of Scholars At Risk, an international network of colleges and universities dedicated to protecting threatened scholars and promoting academic freedom worldwide. He also serves on the boards of World Policy Institute and the Asian Cultural Council, as well as the advisory committee to the Social Science Research Council and the Coalition for the International Criminal Court.

Fanton is author of Foundations and Civil Society, vol. I and II (2008), and The University and Civil Society, vol. I and II (1995, 2002) and co-editor ofThe Manhattan Project and John Brown: Great Lives Observed.

Fanton and his wife, Cynthia Greenleaf, will move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, this summer, when he begins his new position.

*Other newly named fellows to the American Academy of Arts and Scientists are Yale faculty members Steven T. Berry, the James Burrows Moffatt Professor of Economics; Walter Cahn, the Carnegie Professor Emeritus of the History of Art; Pinelopi K. Goldberg, the William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Economics; David A. McCormick, the Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Neurobiology, professor of Psychology, and vice director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at the Yale University School of Medicine; George L. Priest, the Edward J. Phelps Professor of Law and Economics and the Kauffman Distinguished Research Scholar in Law, Economics, & Entrepreneurship at the Yale Law School; David Gilliam Schatz, professor of Immunobiology and Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry at the Yale School of Medicine and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; and Ramamurti Shankar, the John Randolph Huffman Professor of Physics and Applied Physics.