NDIAS artist in residence named 2021 MacArthur Fellow

Author: Brandi Wampler

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Reginald Dwayne Betts, current artist in residence at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS), has been named to the 2021 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Class. Betts is one of 25 fellows to be selected for the honor, which aims to recognize “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

“Dwayne’s extraordinary accomplishments, creativity and moral insight make him so deserving of this recognition from the MacArthur Foundation,” said Meghan Sullivan, director of the NDIAS and the Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame. “This year’s NDIAS Faculty Fellowship Program theme is resilience, which Dwayne clearly embodies, and we are grateful for his engagement with Notre Dame this year. We’ve also been thrilled to partner with the Initiative on Race and Resilience on his NDIAS fellowship.”

As a poet and lawyer, Betts transformed himself from a 16-year-old sentenced to nine years in prison into a critically acclaimed writer and graduate of Yale Law School. He has written three acclaimed collections of poetry: “Felon,” “Bastards of the Reagan Era” and “Shahid Reads His Own Palm.” His memoir, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” is the story of a young man confined in the worst prisons in the state of Virginia, where solitary confinement, horrific conditions and the constant violence threatened to break his humanity. Instead, Betts used the time to turn himself into a poet, a scholar and an advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system.

Betts is the recipient of an American Book Award, PEN/New England Poetry Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, Radcliffe Fellowship and a 2019 National Magazine Award for “Getting Out,” his New York Times Magazine article about his journey from prison to becoming a licensed attorney, among numerous other awards and honors. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland; an MFA from Warren Wilson College, where he was a Holden Fellow; and, a J.D. from Yale Law School. He is a Ph.D. in Law candidate at Yale, and as a Liman Fellow, he spent a year representing clients in the New Haven Public Defender’s Office. During his time at Yale, he founded the Freedom Reads project, which aims to curate a collection of 500 books to be placed in prisons throughout the U.S. 

Betts is the sixth MacArthur Fellow affiliated with the University of Notre Dame. He follows 2017’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, a 1998 Notre Dame alumnus; 2002’s Camilo José Vergara, a 1986 alumnus of the University; 2001’s Xiao Qiang, who studied astrophysics at Notre Dame in the late 1980s; 1987's Peter Jeffery, the Michael P. Grace Chair in Medieval Studies and professor of musicology at Notre Dame; and 1982’s Francesca Rochberg, former assistant professor at Notre Dame.

The purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society. The MacArthur Foundation selects fellows based on three criteria: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances and potential for the fellowship to support creative work.

To read about the 2021 MacArthur Fellowship class, visit https://www.macfound.org/programs/fellows/

The NDIAS convenes an interdisciplinary group of faculty fellows, top doctoral candidates and undergraduate scholars to study questions that require a joint focus, benefit from sustained research and discussion and advance our understanding of core issues that affect our ability to lead valuable, meaningful lives. To learn more, visit ndias.nd.edu.

Contact: Kristian Olsen, fellowships program manager, Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, kolsen1@nd.edu, 574-631-2830; ndias.nd.edu@NotreDameIAS

Originally published by Brandi Wampler at ndias.nd.edu on Sept. 30.