CSMGEP Profiles: Cecilia A. Conrad, MacArthur Foundation

Economics as a Keystone

Cecilia A. Conrad, Vice President, MacArthur Fellows Program, MacArthur Foundation, Chicago

Growing up in the 1960s, Cecilia Conrad was addicted to the evening news. Along with coverage of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, there were news stories about changes in the international monetary system. “That’s how I first learned about the field of economics,” Conrad says. “I saw economics as a field for people who were good in math, but who were also interested in politics and in solving the world’s problems. I also thought the economics would be more welcoming for an African American woman than engineering. My adolescent brain got that one wrong.”

Her activist parents modeled strong leadership traits. Her father was the first African American elected to a citywide office in Dallas, and her mother was his campaign manager. “They conveyed to me a sense of responsibility, a sense of indebtedness to a larger community whose struggles enabled my achievements,” Conrad says. She also honors her teachers for their influence, in particular a math teacher in high school who helped her to participate in a NSF sponsored summer math program where she learned number theory, matrix algebra, Fortran (an old programming language) and symbolic logic.

Conrad earned her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in economics from Stanford University. From 1976 to 1981, Conrad was a fellow in the Bell Laboratories Cooperative Research program, an affirmative action effort that followed the 1973 AT&T v. EEOC consent decree. The goal of the program was to add to the pool of women and minorities with doctoral degrees who might become future employees. One of the elements of the program was a peer network, which Conrad says, “provided critical emotional support throughout graduate school.” During this period, Conrad also worked as an economist at the Federal Trade Commission, Bureau of Economics, Economic Evidence Division.

She went on to teach economics at Duke University, Barnard College at Columbia University, and Pomona College, where she worked in various roles from 1995 to 2013. Conrad entered the world of academic administration in 2004 as the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Pomona College. Continuing to take on administrative roles, she became Vice President and Dean of Faculty at Scripps College, and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College at Pomona. She served as Acting President at Pomona College before being called on to lead the MacArthur Fellows Program for the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago in January, 2013.

As an administrator, Conrad often found her work supported by economic theories and principles. One of her duties at Pomona was working with architects, engineers, facilities directors, and faculty to manage campus facilities and costs. While managing these sometimes disparate groups, she had to explain concepts like opportunity costs. When voting and collaboration were called for, she explained the merits and demerits of different voting schemes and Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Conrad says, “I stayed in administration because I don’t see it as that separate from my scholarly work. Academic administration has been an opportunity for me to apply my economics training to solve real world problems and that is immensely gratifying.”

Conrad is also proud of her other roles in the economics field. She has been a member of numerous committees at the National Science Foundation, and has served on committees for the American Economic Association (AEA), the Western Economic Association International, and was president of the National Economic Association. Among her countless achievements, her research exposed some myths about the cost of affirmative action policies. Working with economist Rhonda Sharpe, Conrad helped predict the consequences of the end of race-based affirmative action on University of California Admissions. Much of her research and published works have focused on the effects of race and gender on economic status. Conrad says she is pleased to have helped clarify changes over time in the economic status of African American women and in the feminization of poverty.

She served as director of the AEA’s Pipeline Project from 1998 to 2005. Now known as the Mentoring Program, Ph.D. students are matched with a mentor who sees the student through the critical junctures of their graduate program (including the transition from course work to research) or the early stages of their post-graduate career. (For more information, see “CSMGEP Pipeline Programs” on page 3 of this newsletter.) Graduate students who participated in the program during Conrad's tenure as director are now on the faculty of Pomona College, Harvard, Yale, Ohio State, Cornell, University of North Carolina, Howard, and on the staffs of the Mathematica Policy Institute, the Urban League, and several government agencies.

In her new position at the MacArthur Foundation, Conrad oversees the selection process for the MacArthur Fellows program, sometimes called the “genius grants.” Conrad says, “Recipients of the Fellowship reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity. They are artists, social innovators, scientists, and humanists (and occasionally economists) who are working to improve the human condition and to preserve and sustain our natural and cultural heritage.” In fact, an early participant in the CMSGEP Pipeline Project, Roland Fryer, was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 2011.

Throughout her career, Conrad has used economics as a keystone while meeting challenges in fields that used to belong only to white males. She serves as a role model for young African American women – and women of all races – who also want to break down barriers. In the spirit of true leadership, Conrad says, “I am deeply indebted to many and hence deeply committed to expanding opportunities to others.” In her role as director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, she will no doubt find ample opportunities to do so.

Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century, made most famous by Marcel Proust's answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

    What is your idea of a perfect day?

A day spent walking around a city – New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Paris, Rome – any city in the company of my husband, my son, my mother, my sister-in-law, or a close friend.

    What’s on your nightstand?

My iPhone. I play Words with Friends before I fall asleep.

    How do you treat yourself? What’s your favorite indulgence?

Chocolate, really dark chocolate or champagne truffles from Teuschers.

    Whom do you most admire?

My parents

    What is your greatest regret?

The working papers that I never submitted for publication

    What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Co-parenting a hard-working, socially conscious black man who is smarter than I am and who will be a more productive scholar than I.

    What trait do you most deplore in others?

Passive aggression

    For a vacation, beach or mountains?


    Which talent would you most like to have?

The facility to learn and speak foreign languages easily

    What would be your dream job?

Leading the MacArthur Fellows program