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Corbally, John Edward Jr., (“Jack”)

Corbally, John Edward Jr., (“Jack”)

(b. 14 October 1924, in South Bend, Washington; d. 23 July 2004 in Mill Creek, Washington), chief executive officer of not-for-profit institutions, including the University of Illinois, Syracuse University, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, for which he served as the first president and launched the well-known MacArthur Fellows program (known familiarly as MacArthur “genius grants”).

Corbally was born to John Edward Corbally, Sr., a science teacher and high school principal who eventually became a professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, and Grace (Williams) Corbally, a homemaker. Raised in South Bend, a town of fewer than 2,000 people in coastal Washington near the Oregon border, Corbally resolved while still a child to follow his father into the teaching profession. He joined the U.S. Navy Reserve after graduating from South Bend High School in 1942, commissioned as a first lieutenant, junior grade. He was wounded in action in the Pacific during World War II, receiving the Purple Heart; he was discharged in 1946.

Corbally resumed his schooling as soon as could, earning a BS in chemistry, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Washington (UW) in 1947. Corbally married Marguerite B. Walker on 12 March 1946, while both were college students. They had two children. Because of the postwar shortage of teachers, Corbally began teaching chemistry in Tacoma, Washington, public schools in 1947. He continued teaching there as a UW graduate student, earning an MA in 1950. That same year, with just three years of teaching experience, he was appointed principal of Stanwood High School, north of Seattle. In 1953 he entered the doctoral program in educational administration and finance at the University of California, Berkeley, earning his PhD in 1955 after just two years. Corbally then accepted an offer to join the education faculty at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

During a fourteen-year career as a scholar at Ohio State University, Corbally produced two books, Educational Administration: The Secondary School (1961) and School Finance (1962), both adapted from his doctoral research of the previous decade. The publications provided him with the credentials he needed to advance toward his primary career goal: higher education administration. After serving in several administrative positions, he was appointed provost and vice president in charge of academic affairs at Ohio State University in 1966. As the university’s chief academic officer at age forty-three, he was far along the path to institutional leadership in academia. But with debate on educational reform reaching fever pitch in the midst of the general turmoil on American campuses surrounding racial issues and the Vietnam War, Corbally had also positioned himself at the eye of a gathering storm.

In 1969 what seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime came his way. Syracuse University, an eastern private school in upstate New York, selected Corbally, a young westerner with an entirely public education, to replace its retiring chancellor and president, Melvin Eggers. The university’s board of trustees made this unexpected choice to remedy an unusual problem. Before World War II, New York state had one of the weakest public university systems in the country and Syracuse University had filled a variety of needed functions for the state, including offering continuing-education courses and preparation for teacher certification. However, the expansion of the State University of New York system since its founding in 1948 was obviating these functions. Corbally was regarded as the ideal candidate to confront the loss of traditional revenues with fresh ideas and vital new programs.

The youngest chancellor in Syracuse University history, Corbally arrived on campus ready to put ideas into practice. But he found a campus torn apart by the issues of the day, and, what was worse, as chancellor he found himself the chief object of blame for all. Perhaps no single issue illustrates his frustration as clearly as the football boycott. African-American members of the team resolved to sit out the 1970 season after the longtime head coach Ben Schwartzwalder refused to discuss grievances they had brought to him in a petition. Corbally heard himself called a racist for not taking action against Schwartzwalder, while major donors demanded he issue a statement supporting the coach.

In his eighteenth month as Syracuse University chancellor, Corbally was provided with a face-saving (and likely career-saving) offer from the University of Illinois in 1971 to become president of its three-campus system (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, and University of Illinois at Springfield). He did not hesitate. Presiding in Urbana-Champaign, Corbally demonstrated his abilities as a creative problem-solver during a tenure marked by a series of broadly acknowledged achievements. Corbally is credited with modernizing and reinvigorating flagging programs at the University of Illinois, notably in agriculture and veterinary medicine; with planning and implementing the rebirth of the rudderless Chicago Circle campus into the urban-oriented University of Illinois at Chicago in 1982; and, perhaps most important to the future of the state university, with the successful launching of a private-donor capital campaign that has since brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the university.

In 1979, after eight years in office, Corbally resigned to accept a leadership role at the fledgling John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. The vast MacArthur fortune, made in insurance, real estate, and other enterprises, had been organized into a charitable trust following John MacArthur’s death in 1978. Catherine MacArthur, a member of the board, admired Corbally’s achievements at the University of Illinois and was instrumental in bringing him onto the board and then installing him as the foundation’s first president in 1980. She was particularly anxious to see Corbally develop a distinctly progressive profile for the foundation, fearing that other board members, especially her husband’s son, Roderick MacArthur, and the radio commentator Paul Harvey, were too conservative in outlook.

An imposing figure at six feet, four inches tall, Corbally did not disappoint. Flying in the face of conventional philanthropic concerns about accountability, he conceived and implemented the “genius grant” idea, bringing the foundation extraordinary public notoriety as well as the praise of the American arts community. Accepting no applications for this program, the foundation selects about twenty-five individuals each year believed to have exhibited creative genius, providing each with a grant of $500,000 in the hope that economic security will result in greater productivity. Grantees need not account for their use of the funds.

Moreover, Corbally institutionalized a series of concerns to focus the foundation in its giving. These include health (such as more than $20 million directed in projects to fight malaria), media (including grants to National Public Radio that help insulate its news reporting from political attacks in Congress), local communities (for example, a special fund for arts and culture in Chicago), and global concerns (including a program supporting education and human rights in the Russian Federation). Corbally sat on the board of the MacArthur Foundation from 1979 to 2002, serving as president from 1980 to 1989 and as a chair from 1995 to 2002.

Corbally’s creativity and his largesse in giving opened him to charges of fiscal irresponsibility, most notably from Roderick MacArthur, who attempted to wrest control of the foundation from Corbally following the death of Catherine MacArthur in 1982. But under Corbally’s twenty-three-year stewardship, the foundation’s assets grew from $780 million to $4.5 billion, even as $3 billion were paid out in grants.

In 2002 Corbally moved back to coastal Washington state, settling in Mill Creek with his wife. He died of brain cancer less than two years later. Remembered as a forward-thinking university administrator and for his decades-long tenure with the MacArthur Foundation, Corbally is credited with launching the foundation’s highly visible MacArthur Fellows program.

Corbally’s papers relating to his presidency of the University of Illinois are in the library archives of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Marguerite Walker Corbally, The Partners: Sharing the Life of a College President (1977), discusses Corbally’s time in academia. Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune (26 July 2004) and the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 27 July 2004).

David Marc

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