Elizabeth Alexander ’84 named president of Mellon Foundation

Photo of Elizabeth Alexander.
Elizabeth Alexander (photo by Andrew H. Walker/The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation)

The trustees of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have elected alumna and former Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander to be the foundation’s next president, effective March 2018.

Alexander, a renowned writer, poet, and scholar, is recognized as one of the nation’s leading voices in modern literature and a visionary in the academy. Over the course of her academic and artistic career, she has developed a number of complex, multi-arts and multi-disciplinary teams, departments, and partnerships. She has dedicated herself to creating, building and sustaining highly successful institutions — from the Poetry Center at Smith College to a major rebuilding of the Department of African American Studies at Yale University, and from the poetry non-profit Cave Canem to the Ford Foundation’s programs in journalism, arts and culture. 

Through her work as a professor and mentor, Elizabeth knows the academic system well, and as an architect of interdisciplinary programs,” said Danielle Allen, chair of the Mellon Foundation Board. “She has deep experience in cultivating partnerships that extend and amplify creative vision. A poet who brings an artist’s forward-looking energy to institutional purpose, Elizabeth is the right person for our times as the foundation seeks to widen the community of stakeholders committed to the arts and humanities and to increase the resources dedicated to this work.”  

I have lived my entire life with art, culture, and scholarship as companion, guide, and discipline,” said Alexander. “I am guided by the justice values of increasing access to the power of higher education to open and strengthen minds, encourage human exchange, and thus transform lives. I am deeply honored to have been selected to lead Mellon, an institution that has been devoted to these areas across its history, and to have been called to the crucial work of building community within and across discipline and institution. The humanities show us deeply who we are and what it means to move through life by the light of cultural vision. I am excited for the work ahead of elevating the truth, beauty and rigor of the arts and higher learning and making them more accessible to all.”

Most recently, Alexander served as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Previously she served as the director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation.

While at the Ford Foundation, Alexander co-designed the Art for Justice Fund, a $100 million fund seeded by philanthropist Agnes Gund to transform the criminal justice system and all of its inequities through art and advocacy.

Alexander spent 15 years on the faculty of Yale University, beginning in 2000. She was appointed the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry in 2015, and served as the Thomas E. Donnelly Professor of African American Studies and as chair of the Department of African American Studies. Prior to those appointments, she was a professor in Yale’s Departments of African American Studies, American Studies, and English. She was the inaugural director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and taught for seven years at the University of Chicago, where she won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. She also taught at New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program.

Yale President Peter Salovey said that Alexander “will be a passionate spokesperson for the ideas of Mellon and the humanities and the arts; this is what she does every day. She is visionary. She has the ability to embody and communicate the value of liberal education, the humanities and arts, access, diversity, and to do it with poetry.”

In her new role, Alexander will lead the Mellon Foundation in drawing in new partners to support the arts and humanities and in refining the foundation’s blend of a commitment to the arts and humanities for social purposes and for their own sake. She said she expects to build on the foundation’s success to date in supporting diversification of educational, scholarly, and cultural organizations with an innovative focus on cultivating institutional capacity for inclusive leadership; and she seeks to widen and deepen the impact of the foundation’s support for a vision of an inclusive America. Linking the foundation’s international work to its core strategic priorities will also be an important objective, she noted.

Alexander is the author of The New York Times bestseller “The Light of the World,” a memoir on love and loss, which was a finalist in 2016 for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of six books of poetry, including “American Sublime,” a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, and two collections of essays – “The Black Interior” and “Power and Possibility.” 

In 2009, Alexander wrote and recited an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, becoming the fourth-ever poet to read at a presidential inauguration.

Her additional works include: “Praise Song for the Day”; “Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010,” winner of the Patterson Prize for Poetry and a nominee of the Hurston-Wright Foundation Award for Poetry; “The Black Interior,” a finalist for Best Non-Fiction, Hurston-Wright Foundation; and “Body of Life.” Her work has been translated into seven languages.

The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Alexander has been recognized with the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, the inaugural Jackson Prize for poetry, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes for Poetry, and the George Kent Award, presented by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Alexander is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and serves on the Pulitzer Prize Board and on the advisory board of the African Poetry Book Foundation. 

Alexander received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her Master of Arts in English (creative writing) from Boston University, and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Yale University. She holds honorary doctorates from Haverford College, Simmons College, and the College of St. Benedict.

The Mellon Foundation, the nation’s most generous and active supporter of the humanities, is committed to five core program areas: higher education and scholarship in the humanities; arts and cultural heritage; diversity; scholarly communications; and international higher education and strategic projects. The foundation seeks to broaden the role the humanities play in education, innovation, and civic discourse by providing grants and strategic guidance to support educational and cultural institutions, research, and public humanities engagements.

Arts & Humanities