Biographies of Yale’s 2019 honorary degree recipients

This year’s honorees included writers and artists, as well as a conservationist, statesman, and champion of women’s rights.
2019 Yale honorary degree recipients

Seated, from left: Carmen de Lavallade, Sister Helen Prejean, Chimamanda Adichie, President Peter Salovey, Cynthia Moss, Strive Masiyiwa, and Mary Beard. Standing, from left: Sheila Hicks, James A. Baker III, Indra K. Nooyi, Gloria Steinem, and Lawrence S. Bacow. (Photo credit: Joy Bush)

These 11 individuals received honorary degrees at the Yale Commencement ceremony on May 20.

Read the award citations of the 2019 honorands

Chimamanda Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie is an acclaimed author whose novels, non-fiction, and lectures have vaulted her to the forefront of world literature — a position from which she speaks eloquently about race, gender, and other social issues. Her 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story, has been viewed more than 17 million times, a perennial favorite among the media platform’s “ideas worth spreading.” In 2008 she received a master of arts from Yale in African studies.

Born in Enugu, Nigeria, Ms. Adichie grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father was a professor and her mother was the university’s first female registrar. After studying for a year at Nsukka, she moved to the United States, enrolling at Drexel University in Philadelphia before transferring to Eastern Connecticut State University. In 2001 she received her bachelor’s degree in communication and political science, and in 2004 she earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Passionate about education and supporting the next generation of African authors, Ms. Adichie has led an annual writers’ workshop in Lagos for the past 12 years.

Ms. Adichie’s writings, illuminating and exploring the African experience as well as immigrant, black, and female identities, have been translated into more than 30 languages. Her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus” (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; her second, “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006), received the Orange Prize for Fiction and became an international bestseller. “Americanah, published in 2013, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and named one of The New York Times’s top 10 books of the year. Her second TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists, was delivered in 2012 and published as a book two years later. Her latest book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions,” was released in 2017. 

Ms. Adichie received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008, was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2015, and was listed among the “World’s Greatest Leaders” by Fortune magazine in 2017. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She, her husband, and their young daughter divide their time between the United States and Nigeria.

Lawrence S. Bacow

Lawrence S. Bacow, a scholar of environmental studies, economics, law, and public policy, became Harvard University’s 29th president in 2018. One of the United States’ foremost leaders in higher education, Mr. Bacow has long championed federal support of university-based research and advocated for expanded access to higher education through need-based financial aid.

The son of immigrants, Mr. Bacow was raised in Pontiac, Michigan. From early childhood he was drawn to the study of science and mathematics — academic passions that would eventually bring him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned an S.B. in economics. He later received three advanced degrees from Harvard: a J.D. from Harvard Law School, a master of public policy from the Kennedy School of Government, and a doctorate in public policy from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Mr. Bacow began his career at his undergraduate alma mater, spending 24 years on the MIT faculty. As the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies, he was elected chair of the MIT faculty in 1995 and became chancellor, one of the institute’s most senior academic officers, three years later. In 2001 he was appointed president of Tufts University, a role in which he led initiatives to enhance the undergraduate experience, graduate and professional education and research, and the university’s international engagement. In 2005 he convened a conference to establish the Talloires Network, a global association of colleges and universities committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education. Mr. Bacow has become one of the nation’s prominent voices on current issues in higher education.

In 2011, Mr. Bacow returned to Harvard to serve as president-in-residence in the Graduate School of Education’s higher education program. From 2014 until he assumed the university presidency, he was the Hauser Leader-in-Residence at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership. He has chaired the council of presidents of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, the executive committee of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, and the Harvard Corporation’s committees on facilities and finance. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Mr. Bacow has written extensively on topics including environmental policy, economics, and negotiation. He and his wife, Adele Fleet Bacow, have two adult sons.

James A. Baker III

James A. Baker III — a venerable presence in American politics over the past half-century — held senior government positions under three U.S. presidents. He became secretary of the treasury in 1985 and served as the nation’s 61st secretary of state from 1989 to 1992. In 1999 he was invited to Yale to deliver the George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture in International Studies, and in 2017 he participated in a panel discussion at the Yale Climate Conference.

Born in Houston, Mr. Baker excelled in his youth at athletics, outdoorsmanship, and scholarship. He attended Princeton, earning a bachelor of arts degree in history and classics in 1952. He then spent two years of active duty as a lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps before continuing his education at the University of Texas at Austin, from which he received his J.D. in 1957.

Mr. Baker began his career in law, practicing with the Houston firm of Andrews and Kurth from 1957 to 1975. It was during this time that he made his first forays into political life, serving as finance chairman of the Texas Republican Party beginning in 1971. In 1975, he became undersecretary of commerce for Gerald Ford, and in 1981 he was appointed White House chief of staff by Ronald Reagan. As treasury secretary, also under President Reagan, he chaired the National Economic Council. And during his tenure at the U.S. Department of State, under George H. W. Bush, he traveled to 90 foreign countries as the United States confronted the challenges and opportunities of the post-Cold War era. His career in the White House culminated with his service as chief of staff and senior counselor to President Bush from 1992 to 1993.

Currently a senior partner in the law firm of Baker Botts, Mr. Baker is honorary chairman of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and a member of the board of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 and the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service in 2000, and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008. His memoir, “Work Hard, Study .  .  . and Keep Out of Politics! Adventures and Lessons from an Unexpected Public Life, was published in 2006.

Mr. Baker and his wife, Susan (Garrett) Baker, live in Houston. They have eight children and are awaiting the arrival of their nineteenth grandchild.

Mary Beard

Mary Beard — distinguished professor of classics at the University of Cambridge — is a scholar of the social, cultural, and religious history of the Roman Empire. In more than a dozen books, she has challenged popular conceptions and shed new light on life in the ancient world. In 2017 Professor Beard spent a semester in residence at Yale, serving as a visiting lecturer in the Department of Classics and a visiting scholar at the Yale Center for British Art.

Professor Beard was born in Shropshire, in the British West Midlands, the only child of an architect and a headmistress. Early on, she displayed a talent for studying Latin, an interest that she carried through her school years. A visit to Pompeii at age 18 cemented her fascination with classical antiquity, inspiring her to investigate the discrepancies she discovered between the history she had been taught and the realities preserved in the site. Her 2008 book “Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, covering the ancient city’s society in all its dimensions, was awarded a Wolfson History Prize.

After studying classics at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, Professor Beard began her career at King’s College, University of London. In 1984 she returned to Cambridge — and was for some time the university’s only female lecturer in classics — where she has taught ever since. Her scholarly interests range from social and cultural life in ancient Greece and Rome to the Victorian understanding of antiquity. Her essays and reviews have been published in the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books. She is the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement, for which she writes the blog “A Don’s Life.”

Professor Beard is a prominent public intellectual, widely known for her cultural commentary. Her campaigns against gender inequality, online abuse of women, and other forms of misogyny have cemented her place as a source of inspiration for women facing harassment and discrimination. In 2013 she was made a Dame of the British Empire for her services to classical scholarship. She is a fellow of the British Academy, a professor of ancient literature of the Royal Academy, a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of the Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences.

Professor Beard is married to the classicist and art historian Robin Cormack. Their daughter, Zoe, and son, Raphael, both are writers and academics.

Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade is a renowned actress, choreographer, and pioneer of American modern dance. Over more than 60 years in the spotlight — from Hollywood to the Metropolitan Opera House to Broadway — she has appeared on the world’s greatest stages, inspiring generations of dancers. From 1970 to 1980 she was a professor in the School of Drama, the first African American woman to teach drama at Yale. In 2015 she returned to the Yale Repertory Theatre to perform her memoir, “As I Remember It.”

Ms. de Lavallade was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of black Creole parents from New Orleans. She began her career shortly after graduating from high school, training and performing with the Lester Horton Dance Theater in an era when it was rare for dance teachers to work with students of color. At age 17, she was introduced by the singer Lena Horne to filmmakers at 20th Century Fox. Her silver screen appearances include “Carmen Jones” with Dorothy Dandridge and “Odds Against Tomorrow” with Harry Belafonte.

It was while filming “Carmen Jones” that she met the choreographer and director Herbert Ross, who invited her to appear as a dancer in the Broadway production of “House of Flowers. Two years later, she succeeded her cousin Janet Collins as principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera, dancing the lead roles in “Aida” and “Samson and Delilah. She was a guest artist with the American Ballet Theatre and has choreographed for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, PHILADANCO! (the Philadelphia Dance Company), the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and productions of “Porgy and Bess” and “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” at the Metropolitan Opera House. Her extensive acting career has included off-Broadway performances in “Death of a Salesman” and “Othello.

Ms. de Lavallade and her late husband, fellow dancer and choreographer Geoffrey Holder, were the subjects of the 2005 film “Carmen & Geoffrey, which chronicled their partnership and artistic legacy. Her numerous accolades include a Dance Magazine Award in 1964, the Black History Month Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the Juilliard School in 2007, and the Dance/USA Award in 2010. In 2017, she was recognized with a Kennedy Center Honor.

In January, Ms. de Lavallade made a special two-night appearance with Jazz at Lincoln Center, performing in “Life of a Legend, a celebration of her iconic collaborations with legendary musicians including Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington.

Sheila Hicks

Sheila Hicks is a path-breaking artist whose works blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture, art and craft. She has founded workshops in France, Mexico, Chile, and South Africa, spent time practicing in Ireland, Germany, Morocco, Japan, and India, and exhibited in museums around the world. She completed both her undergraduate and graduate studies at Yale: one of just three women to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree from the School of Art in 1957, she earned her master of fine arts two years later.

Born in Hastings, Nebraska, Ms. Hicks learned from her mother and grandmothers to draw, paint, spin, weave, dye, and sew. At Yale, Josef Albers and George Kubler became formative influences on her career, helping her to obtain a Fulbright Scholarship to Chile. From 1957 to 1958, Ms. Hicks visited almost all of the countries in South America, photographed archaeological sites, and taught in the architecture department of the Universidad Católica in Santiago. In 1959, Yale Professor Henri Peyre recommended her for a study grant to France, where she encountered the renowned scholar of Pre-Columbian textiles Raoul d’Harcourt. She later moved to Mexico to pursue painting and weaving, collaborating with indigenous artisans to create works for architectural projects. For more than 50 years she has been based in Paris, where she established an atelier in 1964.

Ms. Hicks’s works — often monumental in scale — are colorful, tactile, and sensory, using traditional and nontraditional materials ranging from cotton, silk, wool, and linen to innovative industrial fibers. Her work appears at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago, Chile; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; and the Yale University Art Gallery, among others. Permanent installations are on view at the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York City, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and Fuji City Cultural Center in Japan. Recently she was invited to exhibit in the gardens of Versailles with “Proserpine en Chrysalide,” for which she wrapped a François Girardon sculpture in fabric bands and ribbons.

Ms. Hicks is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague, an officer of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art.

Strive Masiyiwa

Strive Masiyiwa, a global businessman and philanthropist, is widely credited with having helped to open the African telecommunications sector when he founded the Econet Group, a technology company that spans 29 African countries. With his wife, Tsitsi Masiyiwa, he created the Higherlife Foundation, which grants scholarships to orphaned and vulnerable children.

Born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), Mr. Masiyiwa moved to Zambia with his family as a young child. He completed his secondary education in Edinburgh, Scotland, and later studied electrical engineering at the University of Wales, receiving a bachelor of science degree in 1983. He then began his career in the United Kingdom, working briefly in the computer industry before returning to his home country, which had gained independence from Britain in 1980.

In 1986, Mr. Masiyiwa left a job in Zimbabwe’s government-owned telephone company to establish Retrofit Engineering, a construction and electrical contracting firm. Seven years later — following a successful legal battle to end the country’s state-run telecommunications monopoly — he founded Econet. Today, the firm extends beyond Africa to include operations and investments in Europe, South America, and North America. In addition to telecommunications, Econet invests in businesses including financial services, renewable energy, and hospitality.

Mr. Masiyiwa is also recognized for his humanitarian work. He is a member of the Giving Pledge, through which some of the world’s most prosperous individuals have committed to donating the majority of their wealth. Mr. and Mrs. Masiyiwa’s Higherlife Foundation, launched in 1996, has supported the educations of more than 250,000 children across Africa.

Mr. Masiyiwa serves on the boards of Unilever and the National Geographic Society; chairs the board of AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa; sits on the global advisory councils of Stanford University and the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations; and is a past board member of the Rockefeller Foundation. As a member of the SMART Africa board, he contributes to digital transformation strategy throughout the African continent. He has served on two United Nations commissions: the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity and Sustainable Energy for All.

Dedicated to mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs, Mr. Masiyiwa has a Facebook page followed by nearly four million young people across Africa — the most engaged following of any business leader in the world. In 2014 and 2017 he was included on Fortune’s list of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” and in 2015 Forbes named him one of its “10 Most Powerful Men in Africa.”

Cynthia Moss

Cynthia Moss, a groundbreaking conservationist and researcher, is the founder and director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, the longest-running study of African elephants. For over 50 years she has studied elephant populations in the wild, yielding important insights into their complex social and familial structures.

Ms. Moss grew up in Ossining, New York; her father was a newspaper publisher, and her mother had been a legal secretary before their two daughters were born. As a child, Ms. Moss would go horseback riding in the woodlands near the family’s home, looking for deer and foxes. These experiences sparked in her a love of the wilderness and a desire to preserve natural habitats. She attended Smith College, receiving her bachelor of arts in philosophy in 1962, and spent the first five years after graduation testing the waters of a career in journalism.

In 1967, at the urging of a friend from her undergraduate days, Ms. Moss traveled to Africa and met the zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton during a visit to Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park. Observing his work, she became fascinated with elephants and soon left her job as a reporter for Newsweek to become his research assistant. She started the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in 1972 and has lived in Kenya ever since.

Ms. Moss’s research focuses on the demography, social organization, and behavior of the Amboseli elephants; her collaborators use the Amboseli data to study genetics, communication, reproductive histories, and cognition. Much of what we know today about the sophisticated nature of relationships among wild elephants has emerged from research carried out in this project. In addition to directing and supervising research, training young conservationists, and working with the local Maasai community, Ms. Moss promotes public awareness by writing and making films about elephants. Her books — including “Portraits in the Wild: Behavior Studies of East African Mammals, “Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family, and “Echo of the Elephants” — are recognized both for their popular appeal and for their importance in the science of elephant behavior. In 2011 she and her colleagues published “The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective on a Long-Lived Mammal, covering the first 30 years of their research.

In 2000 Ms. Moss founded the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, whose mission is to ensure the long-term conservation and welfare of Africa’s elephants through scientific research, training, community outreach, public awareness, and advocacy. She was awarded a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship for her research that “promises to provide a wealth of new information on animal behavior and in support of the conservation of an endangered species.”

Indra K. Nooyi

Indra K. Nooyi — who in 2006 became the first woman to helm the global food and beverage giant PepsiCo — is celebrated for her leadership and her commitment to helping women achieve success. She received a master of public and private management from Yale in 1980 and was a fellow of the Yale Corporation from 2002 to 2014.

A self-proclaimed “bit of a rebel,” as a child Ms. Nooyi played in a rock band and climbed trees — far from typical activities for a girl in her birthplace of Madras (now Chennai), India. Encouraged by her family to pursue her own path, she studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics at Madras Christian College, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1974. Two years later, she completed an M.B.A. from the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta.

Ms. Nooyi began her career in India at Johnson & Johnson and the textile firm Mettur Berdsell, Ltd., before coming to the United States to continue her business studies at the Yale School of Management; she credits her time at Yale, as well as many mentors and supporters over the years, with helping to propel her toward success. She then held senior positions at The Boston Consulting Group, Motorola, and the Zurich-based industrial technology company Asea Brown Boveri. From 1994 until her appointments as chief executive (in 2006) and chairman of the board (in 2007), she ascended through the ranks of PepsiCo, from which she retired in 2018. Under her leadership, PepsiCo followed the principle of “performance with purpose,” responding to the needs of the world by making more nutritious products, limiting its environmental footprint, and empowering its associates and the communities it serves.

Ms. Nooyi was recently elected to the board of Amazon, on whose audit compensation committee she sits. She is a member of the World Economic Forum board of trustees and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; an independent director of the International Cricket Council; and chair of the compensation committee at Schlumberger, an oilfield services company, on whose board she serves. One of 25 women to have led a Fortune 500 company, she has appeared frequently on the Forbes and Fortune rankings of the world’s most powerful women.

In 2007, Ms. Nooyi was recognized with the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian honor, for “distinguished service of a high order.” That same year, she was named an “outstanding American by choice” by the U.S. State Department. She and her husband, Raj Nooyi, have two daughters.

Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean is recognized around the world for her work campaigning against the death penalty, counseling death row prisoners, and working with family members of murder victims. She is the author of “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which ignited a national debate on capital punishment and inspired the Academy Award-winning film of the same name.

Born in 1939 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Sister Helen was drawn to religious life from a young age. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille (now the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph) at 18, enrolled at St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans, and received her bachelor of arts in English and education in 1962. After completing a master of arts in religious education at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, she spent the early years of her religious service teaching in New Orleans, where she was the director of religious education for St. Frances Cabrini Parish and the formation director for her religious community.

Sister Helen’s advocacy against capital punishment was sparked in the early 1980s when she began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of two teenagers. She soon became spiritual advisor to another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie, and her work with both men prior to their executions compelled her to raise awareness of the practice. “Dead Man Walking, her first book, was published in 1993 and adapted for the screen two years later. In 2004 it was followed by “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

A tireless voice for those at the margins of society, Sister Helen delivers lectures across the United States and around the world. She works with people of all beliefs, including agnostics and atheists, but her insights have had a special resonance with her fellow Catholics — and have helped to shape the Catholic Church’s views on execution. Working in dialogue with other Catholics, she appealed directly to Pope John Paul II, who subsequently strengthened the church’s opposition to executions in nearly all cases. And in 2018, not long after meeting with Sister Helen, Pope Francis announced new language of the Catholic Catechism declaring the death penalty inadmissible, without exception.

Sister Helen remains active as an advocate, counselor, and public educator. Her third book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, will be published in August.

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem — writer, speaker, and activist — is an outspoken champion of women’s rights, internationally renowned as a leading voice of the feminist movement over the past half-century. The co-founder of Ms. and New York magazines, she is the founding president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which supports grassroots projects to empower women and girls, and helped to establish Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1934, Ms. Steinem was often on the road with her family as her father bought and sold antiques in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Her itinerant childhood left little opportunity for formal schooling, but Ms. Steinem and her sister learned from their mother — a former newspaper columnist and editor — to be voracious readers. She enrolled at Smith College, where she became a member of Phi Beta Kappa, studied abroad in Geneva and London, and received her bachelor’s degree in 1956. She then was awarded a two-year fellowship to India, writing for local publications and taking inspiration from Gandhian activism.

After her return to the United States, Ms. Steinem spent the 1960s freelancing for publications including Esquire, Help!, and Show. She was soon drawn into the liberal world of New York City’s arts scene. Yet larger societal and political movements were sweeping across the country, and Ms. Steinem became an activist of the civil rights and anti-war movements. In 1972, she co-founded Ms., for which she continues to serve as a consulting editor today.

Ms. Steinem, a frequent speaker on campuses and in the media, is the host and executive producer of the Emmy Award-nominated series “WOMAN.” Her books include “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions” (1983), “Revolution from Within”(1992), “Moving Beyond Words” (1994), and “My Life on the Road” (2015). She has produced documentaries on child abuse and violence against women, and was the subject of HBO’s “Gloria: In Her Own Words.

Ms. Steinem’s work has had a profound impact in areas ranging from women’s equality to peace advocacy to child welfare. She co-founded and serves on the boards of the Women’s Media Center, Equality Now, and Donor Direct Action. She has received the United Nations’ Ceres Medal, the National Gay Rights Advocates Award, the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At Rutgers University, an endowed professorship in media, culture, and feminist studies is named in her honor. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

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