David Shankbone

Yale will award honorary degrees to 10 people this year, including Academy Award–nominated actress Angela Bassett ’80 DRA ’83 and prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, at Commencement on Monday.

According to a list that the University released on its website a day before the announcement but removed soon after, poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84, primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal, biochemist Richard Lifton, film theorist Laura Mulvey, computer scientist and philosopher Judea Pearl, author Marilynne Robinson, musician Willie Ruff ’53 MUS ’54 and theologian and bishop Rowan Williams will also receive honorary doctorates from Yale.

“We are absolutely thrilled to honor the ten honorants,” Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor said. “They are all deserving of the degrees and [were chosen] through a process of careful selection, and we’re really excited to have them here to celebrate the graduation of the class of 2018.”

A well-known astrophysicist, cosmologist, author and media personality, deGrasse Tyson hosted the science television series Nova ScienceNow from 2006 to 2011. Many credit deGrasse Tyson — who has amassed more than 12.8 million followers on Twitter — with breaking down barriers between the general public and scientists.

DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, has also broken barriers within his field, as one of the few black astrophysicists.

Beyond television, deGrasse Tyson, who will receive a doctorate of humane letters tomorrow, has also served as a presidential advisor to former United States President George W. Bush ’68. In 2001, Bush appointed the scientist to a 12-member commission to study the American aerospace industry and three years later appointed him to a nine-member commission on the implementation of U.S. space-exploration policy.

An honorary doctorate of fine arts will go to Bassett, her third degree from Yale. Bassett grew up in a housing project in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a single mother and a sister. At Yale, she majored in African American Studies and went on to study at the School of Drama as one of two black students at the time, according to the Guardian. Bassett has gained broad recognition for her portrayal of iconic historical figures, such as singer-songwriter Tina Turner in the biographical film “What’s Love Got to Do With it,” a role that won her a Golden Globe award.

Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is one of five poets, including Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, to read at an American presidential inauguration. A former Yale professor and chair of the African American Studies department, Alexander left for Columbia University in 2016 after 15 years on Yale’s faculty. Her departure, alongside those of two other black professors affiliated with the African American Studies Department, prompted many to question Yale’s ability to retain faculty of color.

After she left Yale, Alexander told the News that the University had been slow in responding to calls for increased faculty diversity.

“We presented these numbers and comparisons with Brown and Columbia to the University years ago, and little happened. It’s not that they didn’t know,” she said at the time. “Why does the campus have to explode for faculty diversity to be addressed? Why do faculty of color have to push for this? This should be coming from the top leadership.”

Now, two years after leaving Yale, Alexander will receive a doctorate of letters.

Frans de Waal, who is set to receive a doctor of social science degree, is a leading expert on the social behavior of apes. In his groundbreaking 1982 book “Chimpanzee Politics,” De Waal offered an engrossing account of how intelligence, rather than instinct, drives the behavior of primates.

Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and essayist, will receive a doctor of letters.

The influential jazz musician Willie Ruff, who retired from the Yale School of Music faculty last year after a 46-year tenure, will receive a doctor of music degree.

Judea Pearl, an Israeli-American computer scientist and philosopher, pioneered Bayesian networks, a probability-based model of machine reasoning that allows computers to mitigate uncertainty and establish causality. Pearl will receive a doctorate of engineering and technology.

Laura Mulvey, a British film theorist and professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, will be awarded a doctorate of humanities.

Richard Lifton, adjunct professor of genetics at Yale, is the president of Rockefeller University, a position he assumed in 2016 after more than two decades on Yale’s faculty. He will receive a doctorate of medical sciences.

Rowan Williams, who will receive a doctor of divinity from Yale, retired as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2012 and currently serves as the master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University. He officiated the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011.

Earlier this month, the University rescinded an honorary degree for the first time in its history, stripping disgraced comedian Bill Cosby of the honorary doctorate of humane letters he received in 2003.


Jingyi Cui | jingyi.cui@yale.edu

Hailey Fuchs | hailey.fuchs@yale.edu