The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Appoints Distinguished Writer, Poet, Scholar, and Arts Advocate Elizabeth Alexander as President

The Trustees of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have elected Elizabeth Alexander to be the Foundation’s next President, effective March 2018. Alexander will succeed Earl Lewis, who has served as President since 2013.

Alexander, a renowned writer, poet, and scholar, is recognized as one of the nation’s leading voices in modern literature and a bold visionary in the academy. Over the course of a distinguished academic and artistic career, she has developed a number of complex, multi-arts and multi-disciplinary teams, departments and partnerships, and dedicated herself consistently to creating, building and sustaining highly successful institutions – from the Poetry Center at Smith College, to a major rebuilding of the African American Studies department at Yale University, from the poetry non-profit Cave Canem, to the Ford Foundation’s programs in journalism, arts and culture.  

“The Mellon Foundation is dedicated to the enrichment of the arts and humanities, both inside and outside of colleges and universities; these practice areas are fundamental to strengthening not only our learning institutions, but also the human spirit,” said Danielle Allen, Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board. “Through her work as a professor and mentor, Elizabeth knows the academic system well, and as an architect of interdisciplinary programs, she has deep experience in cultivating partnerships that extend and amplify creative vision. A poet who brings an artist’s forward-looking energy to institutional purpose, Elizabeth is the right person for our times as the Foundation seeks to widen the community of stakeholders committed to the arts and humanities and to increase the resources dedicated to this work.”  

The Mellon Foundation, the nation’s most generous and active supporter of the humanities, is committed to five core program areas: higher education and scholarship in the humanities; arts and cultural heritage; diversity; scholarly communications; and international higher education and strategic projects. The Foundation believes that the health of arts and humanities is critical to the success of higher education, to the human spirit and societal well-being, and to civic preparation. The Foundation seeks to broaden the role the humanities play in education, innovation, and civic discourse, by providing grants and strategic guidance to support educational and cultural institutions, research, and public humanities engagements.

“I have lived my entire life with art, culture, and scholarship as companion, guide, and discipline,” said Alexander. “I am guided by the justice values of increasing access to the power of higher education to open and strengthen minds, encourage human exchange, and thus transform lives. I am deeply honored to have been selected to lead Mellon, an institution that has been devoted to these areas across its history, and to have been called to the crucial work of building community within and across discipline and institution. The humanities show us deeply who we are and what it means to move through life by the light of cultural vision. I am excited for the work ahead of elevating the truth, beauty and rigor of the arts and higher learning and making them more accessible to all.”

Most recently, Alexander served as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Prior to assuming her position, she served as the Director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation.

While at the Ford Foundation, Alexander co-designed the Art for Justice Fund, a $100 million fund seeded by philanthropist Agnes Gund to transform the criminal justice system and all of its inequities through art and advocacy.

“Elizabeth is one of the brightest lights in the academy and a remarkable artist.  She made an invaluable contribution to the arts program at Ford and I’m confident that she will be a great leader of the Mellon Foundation,” said Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.

Alexander spent 15 years on the faculty of Yale University, beginning in 2000. She was appointed the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry in 2015, and served as the Thomas E. Donnelly Professor of African American Studies and as the Chair of the African American Studies Department. Prior to those appointments, she was a professor in the departments of African American Studies, American Studies and English. She served as the inaugural Director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and taught for seven years at the University of Chicago, where she won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. She also taught at New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program.

“The unique qualities that make Elizabeth Alexander the creative and intellectual force we have been so proud to welcome to Columbia will undoubtedly serve her well in her new leadership role at the Mellon Foundation,” said Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger.  “While our university community will miss the first-hand benefit of her relentless commitment to conveying and improving the human condition, we are delighted by her ascent in the philanthropic world and look forward to working with her in her new mission of scholarship and service.”

“She will be a passionate spokesperson for the ideas of Mellon and the humanities and the arts; this is what she does every day. She is visionary. She has the ability to embody and communicate the value of liberal education, the humanities and arts, access, diversity, and to do it with poetry,” said Peter Salovey, President of Yale University.

Said outgoing Mellon Foundation President Earl Lewis, who is returning to the academy, and launching a new initiative, The Center for Social Solutions, to focus efforts on three core areas of concern – race and diversity, water, and the future of work, “Elizabeth is a highly regarded academic thought leader and proven philanthropist; she is also someone I admire deeply.  I wish her well as she assumes her new role as President of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Her appointment comes at a time when the work of advancing the fundamentals of a prosperous democracy needs forward-looking leaders.”

Lewis delivered the Foundation’s first ever strategic plan and brought grant-making program areas into closer collaboration. Under his leadership, the Foundation brought new institutions into the fold and developed a broader network of partners across the many sectors of the higher education landscape. Lewis also launched significant Presidential initiatives including the Mellon Research Forum and the Our Compelling Interests book series focused on diversity and social connectedness.

In her new role, Alexander will lead the Mellon Foundation in drawing new partners in 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. She expects to build on the Foundation’s success to date in supporting diversification of educational, scholarly, and cultural organizations with an innovative focus on cultivating institutional capacity for inclusive leadership; and she seeks to widen and deepen the impact of the Foundation’s support for a vision of an inclusive America. Linking the Foundation’s international work to its core strategic priorities will also be an important objective.

Alexander is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Light of the World, a memoir on love and loss, which was a finalist in 2016 for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of 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.  

In 2009, Alexander wrote and recited an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, becoming the fourth-ever poet to read at a presidential inauguration.

Additional works include: Praise Song for the Day; Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010, winner of the Patterson Prize for Poetry and a nominee of the Hurston-Wright Foundation Award for Poetry; The Black Interior, a finalist for Best Non-Fiction, Hurston-Wright Foundation; and the Body of Life. Her work has been translated into seven languages.

The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Alexander has been recognized with the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, the inaugural Jackson Prize for poetry, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes for Poetry, and the George Kent Award, presented by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Alexander is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and serves on the Pulitzer Prize Board and on the Advisory Board of the African Poetry Book Foundation. 

“Elizabeth Alexander is one of the most remarkable poets of her generation. Her extraordinary poems move across the registers from ode to elegy in contemplation of the many rich layers of African American history, and its many vital forms of community. Having been moved and consoled by her work as an artist, I am thrilled to see what her talents will bring about in her new role at the Mellon Foundation,” said Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate. 

Alexander received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her Master of Arts in English (Creative Writing) from Boston University, and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Yale University. She holds honorary doctorates from Haverford College, Simmons College, and the College of St. Benedict.