Five Yale professors have been invited to join the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a prestigious honorary society and leading center for policy research.
Sociology professor Nicholas Christakis, incoming Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken, psychology professor Edmund Gordon, political science professor Jacob Hacker GRD ’00 and law professor James Whitman ’80 LAW ’88 were notified of their acceptance into the academy last week. In interviews with the News, many said the recognition is largely honorific and therefore unlikely to impact their teaching or research at Yale.
“Although it gave me a skip in my step over the past week, I don’t think my membership will greatly change the work and teaching I do at Yale,” Hacker said. “I think of it more as a lifetime achievement award — though, in my case, I hope half of a lifetime achievement award — than as a spur to particular activities.”
Nomination to the academy, which was formed in Massachusetts in 1780 and whose membership includes the likes of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, is submitted by peers. The new members from 2017 will be inducted at a ceremony in October at the academy’s headquarters in Cambridge, Hacker said.
Once letters of membership have been extended, recipients have until May to write back an “old-fashioned” letter of acceptance, Christakis said. He added that several hundred years worth of acceptance letters are kept on file at the academy’s headquarters.
According to Christakis, the academy has both an honorific and a service component. Many members choose to assist in the preparation of academy reports and publications, he added. Christakis said the academy is a reminder of how both professors and students are all learning together.
“To me, that’s a magical thing,” he said. “All of us — students at Yale, faculty at Yale, the institution itself, these other [honorary] organizations, are part of a worldwide intertemporal community, and I find that very moving to contemplate.”
Gordon, a tenured psychology professor who retired from Yale in 1991 but remains active in his field, called the invitation a “very prestigious honor.” In looking back on his career, Gordon recalled joining part of the group of scholars in the 1960s to establish the national program Head Start, a program housed in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides services to children of low-income families, as well as chairing the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education several years ago.
Gordon, who is 96 years old, said many things motivate his work: his good health, he and his late wife’s commitment to service and his continuing curiosity and need to stay busy.
“I’ve been trying to do serious work for 70 years, so I think it’s mostly appreciation that that group of scholars recognized that I’m out here laboring in the field and continuing to do so,” Gordon said. “I very much appreciate being recognized.”
Gerken, who was named the next dean of the Law School in February, said she was thrilled to be nominated and was especially excited to be inducted alongside Whitman, her colleague at the Law School. She added that the award sends a reassuring message that her work has “reached people.”
Having academy members on the Law School faculty attests to the high quality of teaching and scholarship there, Gerken added.
“The law school, like the University, wants to attract scholars of the highest caliber,” Gerken said. “[Academy membership] is one of many measures of the strength of the department and a helpful signal for those we are recruiting.”
Whitman, a law professor specializing in comparative law and legal history, said that although the concept of an honor society can appear “comical and stuffy,” he believes the academy recognition is more valuable than financial success.
“I’m a firm believer of the importance of honor in life,” Whitman said. “There’s more to life than wealth.”
Hacker said he knew he had been nominated for the academy but had forgotten about it until he received an email on Tuesday, notifying him that a mailed letter was on its way.
The best part about receiving academy membership, Hacker said, was hearing congratulations from people he respects at Yale and beyond. Hacker added that this served as a reminder that “academia at its best is truly a community” and said he was humbled to be in the company of so many esteemed scholars.
“I also believe that the academy’s role as a defender and promoter of scholarship and civil dialogue is particularly valuable at this historical juncture, when too many in our nation’s leadership talk about ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth’ politics without irony or regret,” Hacker said.
The academy welcomed 228 fellows and foreign honorary members in 2017.