He is married to Mary Pierre Morrisett. They have two children — Sarah Elizabeth Otley and Julie Margaret Morrisett.
Morrisett was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the son of Jessie Watson and Lloyd Newton Morrisett. The family moved to New York City in 1933 to escape the hardships brought about by the Dust Bowl and the Depression. After the Great Depression, the family moved to California, where Morrisett met Julian Ganz, a middle school classmate who would later introduce him to Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-founder of Children's Television Workshop.
Morrisett assumed he was headed for a life of academia like his father, a professor at UCLA. “I was brought up to believe that being a professor was the best job in the world,” he said. Today, he credits his father with inspiring his lifelong interest in education.
Morrisett attended Oberlin College and received his BA in philosophy in 1951. Originally, he had wanted to become a chemist, but after taking a fascinating course in his junior year, he realized he wanted to study experimental psychology. He became an Oberlin College trustee and was Chairman of the Board from 1975 to 1981.
He did graduate work in psychology for two years at UCLA, where he met an assistant professor named Irving Maltzman — whom he describes as “very important, very influential in psychology.” Morrisett became Maltzman’s research assistant, and together, they co-authored six papers and studies.
Inspired by Maltzman, whose area was human learning, creativity and human thinking, Morrisett attended Yale in 1953 for three years and earned a Ph.D in experimental psychology. There, he met and apprenticed with Carl I. Hovland, a leading psychologist who founded the Yale Communications and Attitude Change program. In later years, Morrisett would credit that apprenticeship with sparking his interest in communications.
At Yale, Morrisett wrote a dissertation: “The Role of Implicit Practice in Learning.” The thesis, which used three activities — including long distance dart throwing — as examples, explored whether or not it is possible to improve performance by thinking about it. Morrisett concluded that in the instance of dart throwing, it is not possible. But in the instance of a two-handed coordination task, it is possible. Today, the dissertation is cited as an important early contribution to sports psychology.
In 1956, Morrisett landed a teaching job in the School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley. But he was having doubts about academic life. It lacked mystery and excitement, he thought, and he was “unimpressed by the seriousness of his students.”
He joined the Social Science Research Council in New York as a staff member from 1958-59. While there, he met Herbert A. Simon and Allen Newell. Simon and Newell, both faculty members at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon), are “credited with laying much of the groundwork for the emerging field of cognitive psychology, which became Morrisett’s lifelong scholarly passion.” They based their theoretical models on computer simulations of the thought process. These early computer simulations led to Morrisett’s permanent fascination with computer technology.
Morrisett first encountered the Carnegie Corporation, a philanthropic foundation focused on education, while he was at the Social Science Research Council. Morrisett joined Carnegie as an executive assistant to Gardner in 1959, later becoming Vice President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He stayed with the Corporation for ten years.
One of the main contributions of Carnegie during those years was the creation of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Morrisett was the main Carnegie officer working with the committee that initiated NAEP. He worked closely with Ralph Tyler and John Tukey who were essential in developing it.
While at the Corporation, Morrisett developed a specialty in early education and also became engaged in projects concerning human creativity. He became increasingly aware of the educational disadvantages of poor and minority children and wanted to find a way to better their access to preschool learning. Under his direction, the foundation supported six experiments to test children's responses to teaching methods.
But, says Morrisett, "There was a big discrepancy between what we were doing and what we were trying to accomplish [in reducing the education gap]." Morrisett was frustrated because while the experiments were effective, they reached only a few hundred disadvantaged students. He wanted to reach millions.
Coincidentally, his old friend Julian Ganz had suggested that he get in touch with his cousin, Joan Ganz (now Joan Ganz Cooney) who was, at the time, a producer at New York City’s public TV station, WNDT Channel 13. The two became friends.
In December 1965, as Morrisett’s then 3-year-old daughter Sarah watched the test patterns as she waited for her cartoons to start one Sunday morning, her father noticed something. “It struck me there was something fascinating to Sarah about television,” he said.
“Sarah Morrisett had memorized an entire repertoire of TV jingles,” Michael Davis writes in his book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. “It is not too far a stretch to say that Sarah’s mastery of jingles led to a central hypothesis of the great experiment that we know as Sesame Street: if television could successfully teach the words and music to advertisements, couldn’t it teach children more substantive material by co-opting the very elements that made ads so effective?”
In February 1966, at a dinner party at Cooney’s Gramercy park apartment, she and Morrisett talked about his work with early education. Morrisett says he asked Cooney, “Do you think television can be used to teach young children?” And she said, “I don’t know, but I’d like to talk about it.” Television seemed like an ideal platform to use in the Carnegie foundation’s goal of reaching children.
Using her own knowledge of people in television and Morrisett’s knowledge of people in education and psychology, Cooney spent three months interviewing and preparing a report, “The Potential Uses of Television in Pre-School Education.” It suggested that advertising techniques could teach letters and numbers, and provided the essential formula for a new pre-school, entertaining and educational television program appealing to both kids and parents. Morrisett and Cooney approached Harold (Doc) Howe, U.S. Commissioner of Education, who put up $4 million — nearly half the start-up money for Children’s Television Workshop. Within Carnegie, Morrisett secured another $1 million. The Ford Foundation and other sources donated $3 million.
“Had Morrisett been any less effective in lining up financial support,” Lee D. Mitgang writes in his book “Big Bird & Beyond,” “Cooney’s report likely would have become just another long-forgotten foundation idea.”
On Nov 10, 1969, Sesame Street — starring Jim Henson’s famous Muppets — debuted. Morrisett and Cooney watched the debut at the Essex House overlooking New York City’s Central Park West. During the broadcast, he turned to her and said, “Joan, we did it.”
“Lloyd underplays his role in the development of Sesame Street,” said John Gardner, former president Carnegie Corporation of NY. “He’s modest, but people who saw the beginnings of Sesame Street agree that he played a very significant contributing role as a member of that very small group.”
Today, Sesame Street is aired in over 140 countries. As of 2008, the series has received 118 Emmy Awards — more than any other television series. An estimated 77 million Americans watched the series as children. In addition to Sesame Street, at least seventeen indigenous, locally produced versions of the show are seen in countries around the world. Sesame Workshop’s other hugely successful shows have included The Electric Company and Pinky Dinky Doo.
The year Sesame Street hit the airwaves, with Morrisett as chairman of the board of CTW, he joined the John and Mary Markle Foundation as president. He initiated the Foundation's program in communications and information technology, replacing the Foundation’s previous focus on medicine. In his first year, based on his own path-breaking role as one of the founders of CTW, the foundation supported CTW in developing sound research methods to “undergird its bold and nationally-important new programming initiatives.”
In nearly three decades as president, Mitgang writes, “Markle provided more than 1,011 grants. Its expenditure of more than $80 million yielded some 1,500 products that included books, periodical articles, audio and video products, TV and radio productions, CDs, and Internet Web sites.” Many of its grants supported policy analysis and research in the communications field.
In his final presidential essay, “Philanthropy and Venture Capital,” published in the 1997 annual report, Morrisett wrote: “In September of 1969, when I became president of the Markle Foundation, I began to hear questions from friends and acquaintances such as, ‘Okay, so you are a foundation president. What do you do, give away money?’ Since I did not really believe that ‘giving away money’ was what we were about, I struggled with my annoyance at the question and even more at not having a ready answer…
“The nagging question, ‘so what do you do….,’ led to many frustrating conversations and blank looks until I hit upon a useful metaphor that silenced most questions. I said that we were most like a venture capital company, but that instead of financial profit, we measured ourselves by “social benefit.”
“The years since 1969,” he wrote, “have been a voyage of discovery to see if the metaphor, ‘venture capital for social benefit’ really is the best description of what the Markle Foundation has been trying to do.”
In 1971, Nixon's Enemies List was compiled — and Lloyd N. Morrisett was number 200, though it could have been Morrisett, Sr., who was singled out as one of Nixon’s political opponents. Neither of the Morrisetts played an active role in politics.Sesame Workshop (Formerly Children’s Television Workshop): Member, Board of Trustees 1970-; Chairman, 1970–2000
Public Agenda Foundation: Member, Board of Directors 1998-
Tucows, Inc.: Member, Board of Directors 1994-
Morrisett was also a board member of RAND (a research institute dealing with domestic public policy and national security issues) for thirty years and Chairman of the Board for nine years, 1986-1995. He continues as an Advisory Trustee.