Yale awards honorary degrees to 10 individuals for their achievements

Yale will award honorary degrees to 10 individuals who have received distinction in their respective fields at its 317th Commencement ceremony on May 21.
President Peter Salovey and the 2018 honorands

Ten individuals who have received distinction in their respective fields were awarded honorary degrees at the Commencement ceremony on May 21. Pictured are (seated, from left) Judea Pearl, Angela Evelyn Bassett, President Peter Salovey, Marilynne Robinson, Laura Mulvey, (standing, from left) Frans de Waal, Willie Ruff, Dr. Richard P. Lifton, Elizabeth Alexander, Rowan Williams, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Photo by Joy Bush)

Yale will award honorary degrees to 10 individuals who have received distinction in their respective fields at its 317th Commencement ceremony on May 21.

The 2018 honorands and the citation read at the Commencement ceremony follow:

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 May 21.

Read Elizabeth Alexander’s full biography.

Your words are radiant, illuminating our world anew. From Capetown to London, from Harlem to this nation’s capital, your verse and prose circle the globe, exploring family, intimacy, loss, and struggle. And you have said it plain in front of millions, elevating “the human voice” in history. Generous teacher, brave artist: in praise for your songs of hope and truth, we are honored to present you with your third Yale degree, Doctor of Letters.

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’s “Of 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.

Read Angela Bassett’s full biography.

Chameleon of film, television, and stage, you have brought American icons from Tina Turner to Coretta Scott King to life — and, in the process, become an icon yourself. As mother to Tre Styles, Christopher Wallace, T’Challa, and the Jackson 5, as a stock broker, a housekeeper, and a queen, you have inspired us and challenged us. Actress of range and power, in recognition of your superb talent, Yale is privileged to present you with your third Yale degree, Doctor of Fine Arts.

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.

Read Frans de Waal’s full biography.

With empathy and imagination, you challenge our understanding of the animal kingdom and our place in it. Among chimpanzees and bonobos, you have discovered compassion, generosity, and intelligence, diminishing the divide between humans and our primate relatives. Scientist and interpreter, for helping us see a greater capacity for kindness and cooperation in our world and in ourselves, we are privileged to present you with this Doctor of Social Science degree.

Dr. Richard P. Lifton

Doctor of Medical Sciences

Dr. 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.

Read Dr. Richard Lifton’s full biography.

Your research has improved countless lives. You have advanced our understanding of the genetics of disease, accelerating the pace of discovery at our university and beyond. Your findings have led to better treatment and prevention for millions of patients with hypertension. Research pioneer and gifted scientist, in recognition of your trailblazing contributions to human health, we proudly bestow on you this Doctor of Medical Sciences degree.

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.

Read Laura Mulvey’s full biography.

Your pathbreaking theories of film have given us new ways to examine our culture and ourselves. Crossing boundaries and weaving disciplines, you showed us “the male gaze” and opened fresh territory in the study of gender, media, and society. As a filmmaker, you have defied conventions and produced daring works of art. Scholar, artisan, teacher, and feminist, we are honored to present you with this Doctor of Humanities degree.

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.

Read Judea Pearl’s full biography.

Your discoveries have extended the frontiers of human knowledge. With elegant equations and imaginative models, you have transformed our understanding of cause and effect, probability, and uncertainty. Your insights unlock complex puzzles while opening new areas for exploration. Marvelous mathematician, fearless innovator: in appreciation for all that your work has made possible, we are privileged to bestow on you this Doctor of Engineering and Technology degree.

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.

Read Marilynne Robinson’s full biography.

In routine chores and lovely rituals, in the richness of the past and in living miracles, you evoke all the beauty and devastation of our mortal world. With concern for the common good, and alert to the great, unfulfilled promise of democracy, your essays and novels have led us to new understandings of ourselves — sacred, profane, and full of grace as we are. In gratitude for your lifetime of creation, we proudly confer on you this Doctor of Letters degree.

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.

Read Willie Ruff’s full biography.

You have shared the wonders of music with the world. Introducing new audiences to the transcendent power of jazz; you discovered the echoes of distant times and faraway places in this quintessential American art form. In your “conservatory without walls,” generations of young people have been inspired by jazz legends. Scholar, storyteller, and musician, in gratitude for your creativity and charisma, we are privileged to present your third Yale degree, Doctor of Music.

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.

Read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s full biography.

You have led us on journeys through interstellar space, helping us comprehend the complexity of the cosmos. With you, we have explored the wonders of the known world and been humbled by what is yet unknown. No question is too vast, no problem too intricate, for your curiosity. Bright star in humanity’s sky, for showing us how science can explain the splendors of our universe and enlighten our minds, we are honored to bestow on you this Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

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.

Read Rowan Williams’ full biography.

With wisdom and humility, you nurture dialogue and understanding in our fragile world. From the pages of ancient scriptures and in daily communion with the human family, you seek answers to life’s great mysteries. And you live your faith in service to others, reminding us to love and care for our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable among us. Voice of hope, scholar of light and truth, we are humbled to present you with this Doctor of Divinity degree.


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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale Commencement 2018: A campus-wide celebration