Education and career
Nordhaus was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the son of Virginia (Riggs) and Robert J. Nordhaus, who co-founded the Sandia Peak Tramway. Robert J. Nordhaus was from a German Jewish family — his father Max Nordhaus (1865–1936) immigrated from Paderborn in 1883 and was a manager of The Charles Ilfeld Company branch in Albuquerque.
Nordhaus graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover and subsequently received his BA and MA from Yale in 1963 and 1973, respectively, where he was a member of Skull and Bones. He also holds a Certificat from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (1962) and a PhD from MIT (1967). He was a Visiting Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge in 1970-1971. He has been a member of the faculty at Yale since 1967, in both the Economics department and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and has also served as its Provost from 1986–1988 and its Vice President for Finance and Administration from 1992–1993. His tenure as provost was among the shortest in the university's history. He has been on the Brookings Panel on Economic Activity since 1972. During the Carter administration, from 1977–1979, Nordhaus was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers. Nordhaus served as the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank between 2014 and 2015.
Nordhaus lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his wife, Barbara, a social worker in the Yale Child Study Center.