NYU Names Poet Elizabeth Alexander as 2019 Commencement Speaker

The poet who spoke at former President Barack Obama’s inauguration will speak at the 2019 commencement ceremony.


Djeneba Aduayom

Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, educator, cultural advocate, and president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (Photo by Djeneba Aduayom, Courtesy of NYU)

Victor Porcelli , News Editor

Celebrated poet and Yale University Professor Elizabeth Alexander will speak at NYU’s all-university commencement on May 22 at Yankee Stadium, university spokesperson John Beckman announced on Monday.

Alexander is president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has given over $3.5 million to NYU since 2017. With an endowment of nearly $7 billion, the foundation funds humanities programs in higher education and has awarded 105 grants collectively worth over $50 million to NYU since 1970.

The commencement ceremony has featured high-profile speakers in recent years, including 11-time Grammy winner Pharrell Williams and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who spoke in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Still, Alexander has a long list of accomplishments. She is the former Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University, a current Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and her memoir “The Light of the World” was a Pulitzer Prize nominee for Biography or Autobiography in 2016. She also performed her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

NYU will award Alexander, who holds degrees from Yale, Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania, an honorary degree at the ceremony.

NYU will also award honorary degrees to Abdel Kader Haidara, a researcher from Mali who works to save manuscripts from destruction; Carla Diane Hayden, the first woman and African American to serve as the Librarian of Congress; Douglas R. Lowy (NYU School of Medicine ’68), deputy director of the National Cancer Institute whose research helped in the development of the HPV vaccine; and Terrence McNally, a four-time Tony Award-winning playwright.

“[Each honorary degree recipient is] at the forefront of their fields, and they embody NYU’s core values — the generation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge, and its use in service of humanity,” NYU President Andrew Hamilton wrote in the press release. “The powerful achievements of each of our honorary degree designees inspire us all to reach ever higher degrees of wisdom, empathy, and understanding.”

Former NYU President John Sexton will make an appearance at the ceremony and receive the Albert Gallatin Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Society for his part in creating NYU’s global network, which includes the university’s expansion to Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Former chairman and current member of the Board of Trustees Martin Lipton will receive the Lewis Rudin Award for Exemplary Service to New York City while Chancellor of NYU Shanghai Yu Lizhong will receive the Presidential Medal for his work as the first leader of a Sino-U.S. joint research university.

A version of this article appears in the Monday, April 8, 2019, print edition. Email Victor Porcelli at [email protected]