Obituary: William (Buzz) Alexander


William (Buzz) Alexander, who founded the Prison Creative Arts Project and trained thousands of students, teachers, activists and prisoners to illuminate and work to end mass incarceration, died at his home in Ann Arbor on Sept. 19 at the age of 80 from frontal temporal degeneration.

Alexander was a professor emeritus of English language and literature in LSA and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus.

Photo of Buzz lexander
William (Buzz) Alexander

 “Through PCAP at the University of Michigan, Buzz forged a new model for how college campuses could partner with prisons by offering educational workshops and enriching the lives of imprisoned learners and the students who facilitate the workshops,” said Stephen Hartnett, professor of communications at the University of Colorado and editor of “Challenging the Prison Industrial Complex: Arts, Education and Activist Alternatives.”

“Buzz became a national leader, recognized for his fierce commitment to students and his gentle, supportive teaching methods.” 

Under Alexander’s leadership, PCAP grew into a large university program that offers arts workshops in prisons, creates community for returning citizens, and supports the Annual Exhibitions of Art by Michigan Prisoners, co-created with his wife, artist Janie Paul, professor emerita of art in the Stamps School and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emerita.

A former student, Chiara Liberatore said Alexander “woke up” his students. “He created a learning experience that startled and guided me into accessing my own power, inciting an awareness of my own identity and how I could leverage it to make the biggest change possible in my own lifetime,” Liberatore said.

His book, “Is William Martinez Not Our Brother: 20 Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project,” influenced practitioners and program directors in the field of prison arts around the world.

Alexander also authored “William Dean Howells: The Realist as Humanist” (New York: Burt Franklin, 1981) and “Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931-1942” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), winner of the Theatre Library Association Award for best film book of 1981.

William Raymond Hall Alexander was born in Chicago and raised in Wilmette, Illinois, by William and Jane Alexander. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1960 from Harvard University, a Master of Arts in 1962 from Cambridge University, and a Ph.D. in 1967 from Harvard University.

When Alexander arrived at U-M in 1971, he taught literature and cinema studies classes. He soon began to teach classes on how artists respond to social evils as a way to engage students in questions about who we are and our relationship to the world.

His first such class, “The Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Latin America and the Artist,” evolved into a course on the Vietnam War that attracted many veterans.  Later, he focused on the ways in which artists respond to the suppression of popular movements in Latin America.  Eventually these courses focused on the United States criminal justice system.

Alexander was a leader of anti-racism activities among the faculty. He was a co-founder in 1987 of Concerned Faculty, an organization that provided a vehicle for faculty and staff to act on political issues of importance to the university community.

He led the fight for the “new traditions” requirement in the English department requiring English majors to study literature by men and women of color, by women, or by authors from other ethnic groups.

His leadership and organizing work among LSA faculty led to the faculty vote in 1990 endorsing the race or ethnicity graduation requirement in LSA, which today requires every student to take at least one course focusing on “racial or ethnic intolerance.”

 Buzz is survived by his wife; two children, Jonathan and Allegra Alexander; two grandchildren, Miguel and Giovanni Aviles; his ex-wife, Gina Granger; and his siblings, Jeanne Angier, David Alexander, Susan Alexander, Peter Alexander, Edward Alexander and James Alexander.

— Submitted by Janie Paul


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