Elizabeth Alexander – decorated poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate – is president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation's largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in higher education. With more than two decades of experience leading innovative programs in education, philanthropy, and beyond, Dr. Alexander builds partnerships at Mellon to support the arts and humanities while strengthening educational institutions and cultural organizations across the world.
Prior to joining the Foundation, Dr. Alexander served as the director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation, shaping Ford's grantmaking vision in arts and culture, journalism, and documentary film. There, she co-designed the Art for Justice Fund—an initiative that uses art and advocacy to address the crisis of mass incarceration—and guided the organization in examining how the arts and visual storytelling can empower communities.
Over the course of a distinguished career in education, Dr. Alexander has taught and inspired a generation of students. She was the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University from 2015 until joining the Foundation in 2018. Between 2000 and 2015, Dr. Alexander taught at Yale University, where she was a professor in the departments of African American Studies, American Studies, and English, helping rebuild the school's African American Studies department while serving as its chair for four years. In 2015, she was appointed Yale University's inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry. At Smith College, Dr. Alexander was the Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence and the inaugural director of the Poetry Center. While an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, she was awarded the Quantrell Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
An author or co-author of fifteen books, Dr. Alexander was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize: for poetry with American Sublime and for biography with her 2015 memoir, The Light of the World. Her poetry and essays include Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (2010), Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, Interviews (2007), American Sublime (2005), The Black Interior: Essays (2004), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), Body of Life (1996), and The Venus Hottentot (1990). Accolades for her work include the Jackson Poetry Prize, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the George Kent Award, the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes for Poetry. In 2009, Dr. Alexander composed and delivered a poem, "Praise Song for the Day," for President Barack Obama's inauguration. Her latest book, released in 2022, is The Trayvon Generation.
Dr. Alexander earned a BA from Yale University, an MA from Boston University, and a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She holds honorary doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, Yale University, Haverford College, Simmons College, and the College of St. Benedict. Dr. Alexander is Chancellor Emeritus of the Academy of American Poets, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and serves on the board of the Pulitzer Prize.
Photo credit: © Djeneba Aduayom