U-M’s Earl Lewis awarded the National Humanities Medal


Earl Lewis, founding director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Solutions, was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Joe Biden during a White House ceremony March 21.

Lewis, the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy, is the first U-M faculty member to receive this award.

Photo of Earl Lewis
Earl Lewis

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, and broadened citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy and other humanities subjects.

“Earl Lewis chronicles African American history and explores how diversity strengthens our nation; and it does strengthen our nation,” Biden said in presenting the award.

“As a university administrator who has shaped some of our preeminent institutions — pushing them to meet the challenges of our times, from water scarcity to the future of work to racial injustice — he makes American universities an even more important source of our national dynamism.” 

Watch the full award presentation ceremony.

Lewis, who also is a professor of history and of Afroamerican and African studies in LSA, and professor of public policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, is an esteemed scholar in higher education, humanities scholarship and the role of race in American history, and has authored several books on these subjects.

He also is president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he worked to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education.

“As a historian of the African American experience, Earl Lewis has produced pathbreaking and insightful scholarship. In his current role at the Center for Social Solutions, he has demonstrated the intellectual and social utility of the humanities,” said Alford Young Jr., the center’s associate director, Edgar G. Epps Collegiate Professor and professor of sociology and of Afroamerican and African studies in LSA, and professor of public policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

“He has led various efforts that illustrate how the humanities can serve alongside the social and natural sciences to enrich understandings of societal problems and the pathways towards their solution.”

At the center, Lewis guides initiatives that address four core areas of social concern: diversity and race, slavery and its aftermath, water and security, and the dignity of labor in an automated world.

“Dr. Lewis is a distinguished scholar, an award-winning author, and an educational leader, as well as a longstanding mentor and dear friend,” said President Santa J. Ono. “As founding director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Solutions, he is leading the scholarship in justice and equity so necessary for us to advance as a prosperous democratic society.

“I could not imagine a better selection by the National Endowment for the Humanities and President Biden.”

Lewis’ impact reaches far beyond the center and is felt by many individuals in all corners of the university.

“Earl Lewis is a living testament to the transformative power of the humanities. His uncanny understanding of complex systems is equaled by the force of his moral conviction,” said Provost Laurie McCauley. “It is wonderful to see Earl’s legacy recognized and his work amplified by our nation’s highest office.”

Lewis described receiving the news of this award as a wonderful surprise and extremely humbling.

“This award is a sign for others at the University of Michigan that, while many are talking about the crisis of the humanities, there is a place in American life where the humanities are both recognized and honored,” he said. “And this is an honor that I carry for myself but also carry for all my colleagues here and at institutions across the nation that do work in the humanities.”


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