Biographies of Yale’s 2018 honorary degree recipients

This year's honoree included writers and scientists, as well as a These 10 individuals received honorary degress at the Yafilmmaker, musician, and a theologian.

These 10 individuals received honorary degress at the Yale Commencement ceremony on May 21.

Elizabeth Alexander

Doctor of Letters

Elizabeth Alexander — poet, playwright, essayist, educator — is the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest grant-giving organization in the humanities and the arts. A member of the Yale College Class of 1984, she spent 15 years on the faculty at Yale, where she served as the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry and chaired the Department of African American Studies. She has taught and inspired a generation of Yale students, some of whom will graduate today.

Born in Harlem, New York, Professor Alexander was raised in Washington, D.C., where her father, Clifford Alexander Jr., worked as a lawyer and civil rights advocate, and later was U.S. secretary of the army. Her mother, Adele Logan Alexander, is an author, historian, and professor. After graduating from Yale College with a degree in English, Professor Alexander worked for The Washington Post, received an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University, and earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She started her academic career at the University of Chicago; continued to Smith College, where she was the first director of The Poetry Center; and returned to Yale in 2000. Beginning a transition from academia to philanthropy, Professor Alexander served as director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation, where she co-designed the Art for Justice Fund with Agnes Gund and developed programs for artists who engage with social justice and community-building. She joined the faculty of Columbia University in 2015 as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities, a role she held through the end of this academic year.

Professor Alexander is the author or co-author of fourteen books, most recently a memoir, “The Light of the World,” written in honor of her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, who received his M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art in 2002. Both of their sons, Solo and Simon, are currently enrolled in Yale College.

Named chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2015, Professor Alexander also serves on the Pulitzer Prize Board and the Obama Foundation’s Storytelling Committee. She is a founding member of the Cave Canem Foundation and has mentored a constellation of academics and poets including MacArthur Fellows, Pulitzer Prize winners, poets laureate, and National Book Award winners.

Professor Alexander is perhaps most widely known for her recitation at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, for which she composed and performed the poem, “Praise Song for the Day.”

Angela Evelyn Bassett

Doctor of Fine Arts

Angela Evelyn Bassett is an actress, director, and producer known for her captivating, emotionally tinged performances. Born in Harlem and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, she was first drawn to acting when she attended a staging of Steinbeck’sOf Mice and Men,” starring James Earl Jones, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts during a high school field trip to Washington, D.C. She later enrolled as an undergraduate in Yale College, earned her B.A. in African American studies in 1980, and completed her M.F.A. at Yale School of Drama three years later.

Ms. Bassett has performed in numerous productions on and off Broadway, including “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; “Colored People’s Time”; “Henry IV, Part I”; and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” She drew accolades for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth” at the Joseph Papp Public Theater; appeared alongside her husband, Courtney B. Vance, in John Guare’s stage adaptation of “His Girl Friday” at the Guthrie Theater; received rave reviews for her work in “Fences” with Laurence Fishburne at the Pasadena Playhouse; and starred on Broadway in “The MountaintopÆ opposite Samuel L. Jackson.

After making the crossover to the silver screen in John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood,” Ms. Bassett vaulted to stardom as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It. She has performed in an array of memorable films, among them “Waiting to Exhale,” “Strange Days,” “Vampire in Brooklyn,” “Supernova,” “Notorious,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “The Score,” “Music of the Heart,” “Boesman and Lena,” and “Akeelah and the Bee.” She is known for her depictions of strong black women — from Betty Shabazz in “Malcolm X,” to Coretta Scott King in “Betty and Coretta,” to Katherine Jackson in the mini-series “The Jacksons: An American Dream,” to Rosa Parks in “The Rosa Parks Story.” Her more recent television and film appearances include “9-1-1,” “Master of None,” several seasons in the “American Horror Story” anthology, “Black Panther,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “London Has Fallen,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” and “Chi-Raq.”

Over the course of her career, Ms. Bassett has amassed many of her industry’s top honors. She is the recipient of a Golden Globe Award and eleven NAACP Image Awards; was nominated for an Academy Award, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, six Emmys, and nine BET Awards; and holds a coveted star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For her directorial debut, the Whitney Houston biopic “Whitney,” she was nominated for a Directors Guild of America Award.

Ms. Bassett and Mr. Vance are the co-authors of a book chronicling their shared history, “Friends: A Love Story.” They live in the Los Angeles suburbs with their 12-year-old twins, Bronwyn Golden and Slater Josiah.

Frans de Waal

Doctor of Social Science

Frans de Waal is a biologist whose research has shed new light on the social behavior and cognitive abilities of nonhuman primates — and, in turn, on what nonhuman primates can tell us about the evolution of human behavior and cognition.

As the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University, Professor de Waal directs the university’s Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, one of the world’s foremost centers for research on primate behavior. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Nijmegen, began graduate studies at the University of Groningen, and received a Ph.D. in biology from Utrecht University, where he is a distinguished university professor.

Early in his career, Professor de Waal took what was, in his own estimation, the “risky move” of attributing concepts like reconciliation, politics, empathy, and fairness to nonhuman primates. Today, these terms are in common use beyond their application to humans because of the theoretical arguments and meticulous empirical documentation he employed.

An outstanding popularizer of science, Professor de Waal has written 13 books — translated into 20 languages — that are used widely in undergraduate education. His publications are highly engaging to general audiences yet deeply rooted in serious academic research: Each draws on Professor de Waal’s deep knowledge of the relevant literatures and data. In his first book, “Chimpanzee Politics” (1982), he compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. His most recent book, “Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?” (2016), is a New York Times bestseller that explores how profoundly humans have underestimated the depth and breadth of animals’ intelligence.

Professor de Waal is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people and listed by Discover Magazine among its all-time “Great Minds of Science.” He has received a Los Angeles Times Book Award (for his 1989 work, Peacemaking among Primates), the American Psychological Foundation’s Arthur W. Staats Award, and the Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Technology Pioneer Award.

Recognized by the American Society of Primatologists as a “Distinguished Primatologist,” Professor de Waal is the editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Behaviour. 

Dr. Richard Lifton

Doctor of Medical Sciences

Richard P. Lifton, a trailblazing geneticist, spent 23 years on the Yale faculty before assuming his current role as president of Rockefeller University. His research has yielded profound new insights into the fundamental mechanisms of human health and disease.

Dr. Lifton grew up in an Air Force family where he was inspired by the science underlying the development of space exploration. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Dartmouth College, Dr. Lifton completed his M.D., followed by a Ph.D. in biochemistry, at Stanford University. He began his professional career at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, spent two years as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and arrived at Yale School of Medicine in 1993. He chaired Yale’s Department of Genetics for nearly two decades and was the Sterling Professor of Genetics from 2002 until his departure from campus to assume the Rockefeller presidency in 2016.

Dr. Lifton is perhaps best known for his research on hypertension, the leading cause of death world-wide. His research has been instrumental to advances in treatment and prevention of the disease. By identifying the gene mutations underlying exceptionally high or low blood pressure, he discovered that these invariably alter salt reabsorption by the kidneys. His findings, which now inform public health strategies around the world, earned him prestigious honors including the Wiley Prize for Biomedical Sciences (2008) and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2014).

In 2009, Dr. Lifton developed a method for inexpensively sequencing all 20,000 genes in the human genome and showed its utility for clinical diagnosis and discovery of new disease genes. He went on to establish the Yale Center for Genome Analysis; today, the center produces the equivalent of 3,000 complete human genomes each month, enabling path-breaking research across the life sciences.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Lifton has been recognized by the highest awards of the American Heart Association, the American and International Societies of Nephrology and of Hypertension, and the Endocrine Society. He served as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator from 1994 until accepting the Rockefeller presidency, and chaired the scientific planning for President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative in 2015.

Laura Mulvey

Doctor of Humanities

Laura Mulvey, one of the great figures in the history of film theory, is a professor of film at Birkbeck College, University of London. Lauded for her influential role in developing the field of feminist film theory, she has inspired generations of scholars at Yale and around the world.

After completing her bachelor’s degree in history at St. Hilda’s College, University of Oxford, Professor Mulvey began her career writing for periodicals including the British feminist magazine Spare Rib. Her 1975 article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” was published when film studies was just coming into existence as a discipline; the essay has since become one of the longstanding cornerstones of feminist film theory.

From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, Professor Mulvey made six films in collaboration with Peter Wollen, the most influential of which, “Riddles of the Sphinx” (1977), is widely taught at Yale and beyond. A classic of avant-garde cinema, the film employs a series of sweeping panoramic shots — of domestic life, the public, workplaces, the British Museum — to open up new spheres of society for analysis, encouraging the viewer to explore new ways of seeing and thinking.

A giant of the critical and scholarly realm, Professor Mulvey transcends academic disciplines and bridges the divide between humanist and artistic practitioner. Her work resonates far beyond the precincts of film and media studies to enrich gender studies, literary studies, political thought, and the wider culture — the last of these perhaps most notably reflected in a 2012 reference to her work in the television series “Parks and Recreation.”

Professor Mulvey is the author or editor of nine books, including “Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image” (2006), an innovative examination of film in the age of new media. In addition to her position at Birkbeck College, she has been a visiting professor at more than a dozen institutions including Cornell University, Wellesley College, the University of Sao Paulo, and the University of Pennsylvania. She was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2000 and is an honorary member of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Since 1992 she has served as an annual visiting fellow of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program in New York City. 

Judea Pearl

Doctor of Engineering and Technology

Judea Pearl, a pioneer of cognitive computing, is one of the driving forces behind many recent developments in artificial intelligence. He is the inventor of Bayesian networks, which enable computers to reason with uncertainty and to communicate with humans in our native language of cause and effects. His theory gives modern scientists the tools to extract causation from correlations in their respective fields.

Born in Tel Aviv, Professor Pearl received his bachelor of science from Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, completed master’s degrees at Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology) and Rutgers University, and earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now the NYU Tandon School of Engineering) in 1965. A dual citizen of Israel and the United States, he joined the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1969 and has been a distinguished visiting professor at Technion since 2013. At UCLA, he is a chancellor’s professor of computer science and statistics and the founding director of the UCLA Cognitive Systems Laboratory.

In 2002, together with his wife, Ruth, Professor Pearl founded the Daniel Pearl Foundation in memory of their son, a Wall Street Journal bureau chief murdered by extremists while he was reporting from Pakistan. The foundation runs journalism fellowships, lecture series, world music days, and youth initiatives to promote press freedom and East-West understanding. The couple co-edited the anthology “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” which received the 2004 National Jewish Book Award.

Professor Pearl is the author of several hundred scientific papers and three landmark books in automated reasoning: “Heuristics” (1984), “Probabilistic Reasoning” (1988), and “Causality” (2000). His latest book, “The Book of Why” (2018), explains the new science of cause and effect to the general public.

Professor Pearl is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and of the Cognitive Science Society, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the National Academy of Sciences, and a founding fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence.

In 2012 Professor Pearl received both the A.M. Turing Award and Technion’s Harvey Prize. He is a co-founder and editor of the Journal of Causal Reasoning.

Marilynne Robinson

Doctor of Letters

Marilynne Robinson — novelist and essayist — has received international acclaim for her close and eloquent studies of life, faith, and human nature. Her writing has earned her numerous literary honors and an ardent following of readers, from Yale faculty and students to former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Born and raised in Idaho, Professor Robinson earned her bachelor of arts in 1966 from Pembroke College, the women’s college that merged into Brown University five years later. Encouraged in her artistic pursuits by her parents and her older brother, the art historian David Summers, she completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Washington and began to establish her career as a writer. Her debut novel, “Housekeeping,” published in 1980, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

In 1989, after several residencies and visiting professorships in the United States and England, Professor Robinson began teaching in the University of Iowa’s master of fine arts program. She joined the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop two years later, serving as the F. Wendell Miller Professor until her retirement in 2016.

It was around this time that Professor Robinson began to explore nonfiction, producing articles and reviews for Harper’s Magazine and the New York Times Book Review. Many of her writings have focused on Christianity; her 2010 collection of essays on the debate between science and religion, “Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self,” grew out of the Dwight H. Terry Lectures she gave at Yale in 2009.

For her 2004 book, “Gilead” — an epistolary novel set in rural Iowa — Professor Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The first in a trilogy, the novel was followed by “Home,” winner of the Orange Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and “Lila,” a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

In 2012, President Obama presented Professor Robinson with the National Humanities Medal for her “grace and intelligence in writing.” Four years later, she was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people.

Professor Robinson has been honored with the Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award, the Dayton Peace Prize’s Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, and South Korea’s Park Kyong-ni Prize for international literature. Her newest book — a collection of essays entitled “What Are We Doing Here?” —was published in February. 

Willie Ruff

Doctor of Music

Willie Ruff, the influential jazz musician, educator, and documentarist, spent 46 years as a member of the Yale School of Music faculty until his retirement last year. He continues to dedicate his life to sharing and illuminating music’s ability to transcend cultural boundaries.

Born in Alabama in 1931, Professor Ruff was raised by a single mother in a house without electricity. “There was no radio or music,” he recalled, “but there was always dancing.” His hometown, Sheffield, is less than a mile from the birthplace of the “father of the blues,” W.C. Handy, whom he met as a second-grader during a visit by Handy to his school.

At age 14, enamored of music and seeking a better education, Professor Ruff forged a parental permission signature to enlist in the U.S. Army, where he learned to play French horn and bass. He then earned bachelor’s (1953) and master’s (1954) degrees from Yale School of Music.

During his army service, Professor Ruff had met the pianist Dwike Mitchell. The pair reunited in 1955, first as a part of Lionel Hampton’s band and later as the Mitchell-Ruff Duo. Their collaboration — performing in nightclubs across the United States; introducing jazz to new audiences in Russia, China, and beyond; and playing alongside legends from Miles Davis to Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie — endured until Mitchell’s death in 2012.

In 1971, Professor Ruff returned to Yale as a member of the School of Music faculty. Five years later, with colleague John Rodgers, the Silliman Professor of Geology, he constructed a “planetarium for the ear” — a series of recordings based on 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler’s notations about planetary motion. The music has traveled beyond the limits of our solar system aboard the Voyager space probes.

Professor Ruff is the founding director of Yale’s Duke Ellington Fellowship Program, which brings the giants of jazz to campus and the New Haven public schools. He was awarded the Samuel Simons Sanford Medal, the School of Music’s highest honor, in 2013. A gifted ethnomusicologist, he is credited with discovering the connections between Native American and African American line singing and Gaelic call-and-response church services in Scotland, revealing a previously unknown cultural exchange dating back centuries. His 1991 memoir, “A Call to Assembly: The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller,” received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Doctor of Humane Letters

Neil deGrasse Tyson — astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author — is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Transcending the research community to promote understanding of science among the wider public, he is recognized as one of the most influential scientists of our time.

Born and raised in New York City, Mr. Tyson graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at Harvard University before completing his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Columbia University. His research interests include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of the Milky Way. He began his work at the Hayden Planetarium in 1996 and has been a research associate in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics since 2003.

In addition to dozens of scholarly publications, Mr. Tyson has written extensively for a general audience. His most recent book, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” makes scientific literacy available to even the most time-pressed among us; a forthcoming publication, “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military,” is under contract.

Mr. Tyson has appeared on screen as the host of three television series: “Origins,” “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” and the magazine-style program “NOVA scienceNow.” He is the creator and narrator of “StarTalk,” a radio show, podcast, and television program funded by the National Science Foundation. In 2015, he received the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal for bringing science to the nation.

Mr. Tyson serves on the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Board and on the board of directors of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund. He has received the Stephen Hawking Medal for Outstanding Communication, was awarded the NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal for his service on NASA’s advisory council, and was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people. In November 2000, the International Astronomical Union renamed an asteroid “13123 Tyson” in his honor.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Physical Society, Mr. Tyson lives in New York City with his wife and their two children. 

Rowan Williams

Doctor of Divinity

Rowan Williams, the distinguished theologian, was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012 — the first person since the Reformation to be elected to that role from outside the Church of England. Currently master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University, he is one of the most important public voices in global Christianity.

Born in Swansea, Wales, Archbishop Williams was an only child whose parents converted from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism when he was 11 years old. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Christ’s College, Cambridge, and a doctorate of philosophy in theology at Wadham College, University of Oxford, in 1975. Two years later, he was appointed a lecturer at Cambridge; from those days he has been regarded as a key figure in the flowering of contemporary British theology.

Early in his career, Archbishop Williams became one of the youngest occupants of the prestigious Lady Margaret Professorship at the University of Oxford. As a scholar, he has gained respect as an original and commanding theologian, with a particular ability to draw fresh conclusions and insights from traditional sources. His opus ranges from highly technical and sophisticated contributions in scholarly debates to popular works addressing the human condition.

Archbishop Williams is acclaimed for his strong moral stances on topics such as nuclear armament, war, and media manipulation, and has written extensively across a swath of disciplines and topics — on philosophy, spirituality, and religious aesthetics, but also on moral, ethical, and social issues. He was made a fellow of the British Academy in 1990.

Archbishop Williams and his wife, Jane Paul Williams, a lecturer in theology, have two adult children, Rhiannon and Pip. Ms. Williams gave the Louis Wetherbee Pitt Lecture at Berkeley Divinity School in 2007. Archbishop Williams will deliver the keynote address at the 2018 Yale Liturgy Conference.


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