Actress, cosmologist, jazz great among Yale’s honorary degree recipients

NEW HAVEN — Actress Angela Bassett said she was “ecstatic” to receive an honorary degree.

Willie Ruff, a retired professor of music at Yale and a local jazz legend, said, “I never had it so good.”

And asked how it felt to be at Yale, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “I have to be somewhere in the universe. It might as well be on the Yale campus.”

They were three of the 10 honorees at Yale University’s 317th commencement Monday on Old Campus, at which more than 3,700 undergraduate and graduate students were awarded their degrees.

The other recipients were poet, playwright and essayist Elizabeth Alexander, who delivered the inaugural poem for President Barack Obama in 2009; Frans de Waal, a biologist who has studied the social behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos; Richard P. Lifton, a geneticist and president of Rockefeller University, and like Ruff and Alexander, a former Yale professor; Laura Mulvey, a film theorist at the University of London who specializes in feminist film theory; Judea Pearl, who has been a pioneer in artificial intelligence; Marilynne Robinson, a novelist and essayist; and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Yale’s tradition is to grant honorary degrees on graduation day, keeping the names a secret until commencement. But the list was posted on the Yale News website on Sunday, according to spokeswoman Karen Peart.

Yale’s annual speaker does not address the graduates at commencement, instead giving a speech the day before to the seniors and their families and friends on Class Day. On Sunday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to the graduating seniors and their families.

Bassett, who received a loud ovation when her name was announced, graduated from Yale in 1980 and the Yale School of Drama in 1983. She has acted on and off Broadway and in films and television, in roles as diverse as Rosa Parks, Lady Macbeth and Ramonda in “Black Panther.” Bassett has starred in several dramas by the playwright August Wilson, has directed and produced films and written a memoir, “Friends: A Love Story,” with her husband, Courtney B. Vance.

Yale President Peter Salovey described Bassett, 59, as a “chameleon of film, television and stage. You have brought American icons from Tina Turner to Coretta Scott King to life and you have become an icon yourself.” Bassett was born in Harlem and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. She and Vance have 12-year-old twins, Bronwyn Golden and Slater Josiah.

The ebullient Tyson, 59, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is a frequent guest on television talk shows and has been host of three TV shows, promoting his love of science. A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, he is a cosmologist who studies star formation, dwarf galaxies and the structure of the Milky Way.

Along with Davis, he received the loudest cheers from the graduates.

“You have led us on journeys through interstellar space,” Salovey said. “With you we have explored the wonders of the known world” and been shown “how science can explain the splendors of our universe and enlighten our minds.”

His most recent book is “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.”

In awarding his degree, Salovey told Ruff he had “shared the wonders of music to the world” playing and teaching “the transcendent power of jazz. “In your conservatory without walls, generations of young people have been inspired,” Salovey said.

Ruff, 86, an Alabama native, retired last year after 46 years as a professor in the Yale School of Music. He joined the U.S. Army at 14, then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at Yale. A bass and French horn player, he and pianist Dwike Mitchell, whom Ruff met in the Army, played with Lionel Hampton and then formed the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, playing in Russia and China. He is the founding director of Yale’s Duke Ellington Fellowship Program, which annually brings renowned jazz musicians to Yale.

Alexander, 55, is both a writer and philanthropist, who graduated from and taught at Yale, serving as professor of poetry and chairwoman of the Department of African American Studies. She is president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose grants focus on the humanities and the arts.

Salovey told Alexander, who graduated from Yale in 1984, “your words are radiant, illuminating our world anew, from Capetown to London,” revealing “intimacy, loss and struggle, and you have said it plain.”

Alexander was named chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2015 and serves on the Pulitzer Prize Board and the Obama Foundation’s Storytelling Committee. On Jan. 20, 2009, Alexander recited her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at Obama’s inauguration.

She has written or co-authored 14 books, including a memoir, “The Light of the World,” written in honor of her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus. Both of their sons, Solo and Simon, attend Yale.

The Welsh-born Williams, 67, was archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, from 2002 to 2012, the first to be elected from outside the Church of England. The Episcopal Church is the U.S.-based member of the communion.

“With wisdom and humility, you nurture dialogue and understanding in our fragile world,” Salovey told him. “You seek answers to life’s great mysteries and you have lived your life in service to others … especially the most vulnerable among us.”

As a theologian, Williams has written on a wide variety of topics, including nuclear armament, war and media manipulation. He will deliver the keynote address at the 2018 Yale Liturgy Conference on June 20 at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green.

Lifton, a geneticist, taught at Yale for 23 years before being named president of Rockefeller University in New York in 2016. He was born in 1953.

He developed a gene-sequencing method in 2009 and founded the Yale Center for Genome Analysis. “Your research has improved countless lives,” Salovey said. “Your findings have led to better treatment and prevention for millions of people with hypertension.”

His work focused on how gene mutations that alter reabsorption of salt by the kidneys, causing unusually high or low blood pressure.

Lifton was chairman of scientific planning for President Barack Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative in 2015.

Mulvey, 76, a professor at Birkbeck College, University of London, wrote an article for the British journal Screen, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in 1975, considered a landmark in feminist film theory. She and collaborator Peter Wollen made six films, including the 1977 avant-garde classic, “Riddles of the Sphinx.”

“Your path-breaking theories of film have given us new ways to examine the world and ourselves,” Salovey said. “As a filmmaker you have defied conventions and have produced daring works of art.”

Pearl is a computer scientist who works in artificial intelligence and invented Bayesian networks, which can be used for “prediction, anomaly detection, diagnostics, automated insight, reasoning, time series prediction and decision making under uncertainty,” according to

Born in Tel Aviv, Pearl, 81, holds dual citizenship in Israel and the United States and teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles. Salovey said that “your disciplines have extended the frontiers of human knowledge with transcendent equations” and called him a “marvelous mathematician, fearless innovator and appreciator of all that your work has made possible.”

Pearl and his wife, Ruth, founded the Daniel Pearl Foundation in 2002, in memory of their son, who was beheaded by terrorists while reporting in Pakistan as bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. The foundation “promotes mutual respect and understanding among diverse cultures through journalism, music and dialogue,” according to its website.

Frans de Waal, 69, has, as a biologist, compared the behavior of nonhuman primates with their human cousins. In 1982, his first book, “Chimpanzee Politics,” “compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians,” according to his Emory University profile.

“With empathy and imagination you challenge our understanding of the animal kingdom and our place in it,” Salovey said. At Emory, he directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, where he has applied concepts such as reconciliation, politics and fairness” to the apes he studies.

His most recent book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” published in 2016, was a New York Times bestseller. He is editor in chief of the journal Behaviour.

“In routine chores and lovely rituals … you evoke all the beauty and devastation of our modern world,” Salovey said of Robinson’s writing. A native of Idaho, Robinson’s debut novel, “Housekeeping,” published in 1980, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Robinson, 74, who counts former President Obama as one of her fans, then won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1984 novel, “Gilead,” the first in a trilogy. She has also written essays on subjects such as the intersection of science and religion.

In 2012, Obama presented her with the National Humanities Medal for her “grace and intelligence in writing.” She also has received the Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award.