The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports humanities, culture and the arts in higher education, has appointed nationally acclaimed poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander as its president.
Alexander, who succeeds Earl Lewis in the position next month, has blended creativity and art with academic leadership. Her poetry has been recognized from the White House to the halls of Ivy League institutions at the same time that she has built a reputation as an administrator with strong management skills. Her memoir, Light of the World, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters and was former First Lady Michelle Obama’s favorite book of 2015.
Elizabeth Alexander with President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Alexander spent 15 years on the faculty of Yale University, where she served as a professor and chair of the African American Studies Department. She also was director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation.
In a phone interview with Diverse, Alexander said she has embraced all of these roles — as a poet.
“Being a poet is my central calling and my deep soul’s work. You also need to have a day job in order to be a poet. I have felt really fortunate to be able to create in my life the world of ideas, the world of the academy and the world of African-American studies. All of those are spaces … that supported what it meant to be a poet.”
Even navigating the sometimes political nature of academic administration wasn’t an obstacle. “Life is full of navigation and politics,” she said. “I look at where are the opportunities.”
Many will be at Mellon, Alexander said. She will lead the foundation in drawing in new partners to support the arts and humanities and in “refining the foundation’s distinctive blend of a commitment to the arts and humanities for social purposes and for their own sake,” according to the announcement of her appointment.
Alexander’s life work also includes the social issues she supports, including the mass incarceration of people of color. She accepts, even embraces, the description of “activist.”
“The way I think of being an activist — that’s a mantle that I am proud to wear because what that means is trying to build communities that are fairer and more diverse.” She adds, “Everything in our society is not fairly distributed … there is injustice, and if you are in a position to be helpful in that regard, I think you have to do what you can to be helpful.”
Alexander said she has been “very inspired by the poet-activist-essayist June Jordan, who has always been a guiding light to me.” For Jordan, who died in 2002, “activism is not always about fighting against, but it’s about what are you saying ‘yes’ to, what are you trying to build … That’s how I proudly think about what it means to be an activist.”
In 2009, Alexander wrote and delivered her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. “That was the honor of a lifetime because, of course, in that moment there was so much hope and possibility and so much collective spirit and so many people feeling that the election of that particular president was something that they would not have lived to see. So it was very humbling to stand for American poetry in that moment.”
She served as director of the Poetry Center at Smith College and taught for seven years at the University of Chicago. Alexander also taught in New York University’s graduate creative writing program and in 2015 joined the faculty at Columbia University as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor of the Humanities.
Alexander received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, M.A. in English from Boston University and a B.A. in English from Yale. She has authored 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.
According to its website, the Mellon Foundation’s total endowment, as of December 31, 2016 was just over $6.2 billion. The foundation had awarded grants totaling nearly $287.3 million in five core program areas: higher education and scholarship in the humanities; international higher education and strategic projects; arts and cultural heritage; diversity and scholarly communications.
Noting that her goals and Mellon’s mission are “uncannily aligned,” Alexander said she sees this latest opportunity as a way to “support and assert the value of arts and culture to our day-to-day living, the urgency and importance of higher education and what the humanities give us in understanding literally what it means to be human.”