Idina Menzel
Photo by John Russo

Idina Menzel, Honorary Doctor of Arts and 2023 Commencement Speaker

Actress, singer, songwriter of stage and screen
Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, 2004

Idina Menzel is a Tony-Award winning actress, singer/songwriter, producer, and author whose Broadway career began when she originated the role of Maureen in the popular musical Rent.  She subsequently became widely known for playing the original Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the hit musical Wicked, for which she won a Tony Award in 2004.

Ms. Menzel was the voice of Elsa in Disney’s Oscar-winning Frozen, the second highest grossing animated film of all time. She sang the film’s song “Let It Go,” which became an instant international phenomenon and won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2014. The track reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, making Menzel the first artist to achieve both a Billboard Top 10 hit and a Tony Award for acting.

Among Ms. Menzel’s numerous other stage and screen acting credits include her role as Adam Sandler’s wife in the critically acclaimed film Uncut Gems; the reprisal of her leading role as Elsa in Frozen 2; Disney’s Enchanted and its sequel, Disenchanted, and theater performances in Skintight, If/Then, Hair, Aida, and many more. In late 2022, Menzel released the documentary, Which Way to the Stage? which followed her on a national tour as she juggled being a working mom with a grueling tour schedule and concludes with her lifelong dream of headlining Madison Square Garden.

A skillful songwriter, Ms. Menzel’s prolific recording career includes multiple cast albums and solo albums.  As a live performer, she has been accompanied by symphony orchestras around the world.  In March 2012, Menzel released a CD and DVD, Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony, a concert with an orchestra led by the late legendary composer/conductor Marvin Hamlisch, filmed at The Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall in Toronto, Canada.

In 2010, Ms. Menzel co-founded A BroaderWay Foundation, which offers girls from underserved communities an outlet for self-expression and creativity through arts-centered programs. The emphasis is on building self-esteem, developing leadership qualities, and striving for personal and social achievement.  In 2014, Menzel was recognized as one of Variety’s Power of Women honorees for her work with the organization.

Abhijit Banerjee

Abhijit BanerjeeHonorary Doctor of Laws

Nobel Prize in Economics, 2019
Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee is the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  In 2003, he co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) with Esther Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan.  He remains a Co-Director of J-PAL, a global research center that works to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence.

Dr. Banerjee is a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Econometric Society. He is a winner of the Infosys Prize and a co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics (with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer) for groundbreaking work in development economics research.

The author of numerous articles, Dr. Banerjee has also written five books, including Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, which won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year, and Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems, both co-authored with Esther Duflo.  He is the Editor of three additional books and has directed two documentary films.

Dr. Banerjee has served on the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. He is a Trustee of Save the Children USA and the Chair of the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel and the Global Advisory Board for Covid-19 Response of the government of West Bengal.

Dr. Banerjee received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Calcutta and Jawaharlal University in New Delhi, India, respectively, and his doctoral degree from Harvard University.

Jean Bennett

Jean Bennett, Honorary Doctor of Sciences

Co-pioneer of gene therapy to reverse inherited retinal disease
F.M. Kirby Professor Emeritus of Ophthalmology, University of Pennsylvania

Jean Bennett, MD, PhD, is the F.M. Kirby Professor Emeritus of Ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.  She was recruited in 1992 to Penn’s Scheie Eye Institute where she has spent the past three decades developing gene-based strategies for treating inherited retinal degenerations. Dr. Bennett has run a true bench-to-bedside translational research program and, in the process, has trained hundreds of physician-scientists, many of whom are now leaders in translational research around the globe.

Dr. Bennett was the scientific leader of a team that translated reversal of blindness in animal models to demonstration of efficacy and safety of gene therapy in children and adults. She was the scientific director of clinical studies at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that led to the first FDA-approved gene therapy product for a genetic disease (LuxturnaTM). She helped develop the primary outcome measure for that trial.

Dr. Bennett continues to develop gene-based therapies for retinal degenerative diseases and to tackle some of the limitations of current gene therapy technologies. She recently co-founded Opus Genetics to help those patients and families that suffer from conditions that are so rare that they have been neglected by the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Bennett graduated from Yale College with a BS in Honors Biology, received her PhD (Zoology, Cell and Developmental Biology) from University of California, Berkeley, and her MD from Harvard Medical School. She then received post-graduate training at Yale University and Johns Hopkins University in Human Genetics and Developmental Genetics.

An internationally recognized expert in gene therapy, Dr. Bennett has authored more than 120 peer-reviewed papers. Among her numerous awards are the Retina Research Foundation Pyron Award, the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award, the John Scott Award, and the Albert C. Muse Prize.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Honorary Doctor of Sciences

Astrophysicist who discovered pulsars
Visiting Professor of Astrophysics and Professorial Fellow at Mansfield College,
University of Oxford

Chancellor, University of Dundee, Scotland

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics and a Professorial Fellow at Mansfield College at the University of Oxford and the Chancellor of the University of Dundee, Scotland.  As a graduate student in radio astronomy at the University of Cambridge in the late 1960s, Dr. Bell Burnell discovered pulsars, a pulsating radio star.  It is considered one of the most important astronomical advances of the 20th century, which introduced a new branch of astrophysics and earned her supervisor a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974.

Since her discovery, Dr. Bell Burnell, a Northern Ireland native, has held roles in many areas of astronomy.  She was the first woman to serve as President of the Institute of Physics for the UK and Ireland (2008) and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (2014). She also served as President of the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society.

Dr. Bell Burnell has received numerous honors, including the Institute of Physics President's Medal in 2017 and the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 2021.  Queen Elizabeth II appointed her Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to Astronomy in 1999 and promoted her to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007.

Dr. Bell Burnell has been a role model and champion for young students, particularly women, in science. In 2018, she received the $3 million Breakthrough Prize, which she donated to the Institute of Physics to establish scholarships for under-represented groups in physics.  She was also part of a group of women scientists who created Athena SWAN (Scientific Women's Academic Network) to promote diversity at institutions of higher learning.

She is Co-Editor of an anthology of poetry with an astronomical theme: Dark Matter: Poems of Space.

Esther Duflo

Esther Duflo, Honorary Doctor of Laws

Nobel Prize in Economics, 2019
Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Esther Duflo is the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  In 2003, Dr. Duflo co-founded (with Abhijit Banerjee and Sendhil Mullainathan) the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), whose mission is to ease global poverty.  She is a Co-Director of J-PAL, which conducts research, policy outreach, and training in 95 countries.

Dr. Duflo’s research is focused on understanding the economic lives of the poor, with the aim of helping design and evaluate social policies. She has worked on many issues, including health, education, financial inclusion, governance, and the environment.

Dr. Duflo has received numerous academic honors and prizes, including the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics with fellow recipients Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” She also received the Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences (2015), the A.SK Social Science Award (2015), the Infosys Prize (2014), the David N. Kershaw Award (2011), a John Bates Clark Medal (2010), and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship (2009).

With Abhijit Banerjee, she wrote Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, which won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2011 and has been translated into more than 17 languages.  They also co-authored Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems, published in 2019.

Dr. Duflo is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.

A native of France, Dr. Duflo earned degrees in history and economics from Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris, and a PhD in Economics from MIT in 1999.

Brent Staples

Brent Staples, Honorary Doctor of Letters

Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing, 2019
New York Times Editorial Board member, author

Since 1990, Brent Staples has been a member of the Editorial Board of The New York Times where he writes about politics and culture.  In 2019, he received the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for a collection of essays that explores racial injustice in America.  The Pulitzer Prize Board cited Mr. Staples’ “editorials written with extraordinary moral clarity that charted the racial fault lines in the United States at a polarizing moment in the nation’s history.”

Before joining the Editorial Board, Mr. Staples served as an Editor of The New York Times Book Review and an Assistant Editor for metropolitan news. He began his career as a writer in Chicago with two free weekly newspapers, The Chicago Journal and The Chicago Reader, before becoming a Staff Reporter for The Chicago Sun-Times.

In 2020, Mr. Staples was elected a fellow of The Society of American Historians.  His 1994 memoir, Parallel Time: Growing up in Black and White, received the Anisfield-Wolff Book Award and was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Mr. Staples has lectured widely at colleges, universities, and other venues across the country, and his essays are published in college readers throughout the English-speaking world.  He has been a Visiting Fellow at the University of Chicago, The Hoover Institution, and Yale University.

Mr. Staples was born and raised in Chester, Pennsylvania. He received a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science from Widener University and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Chicago.

Nominating an Honorary Degree Recipient

The Office of the University Secretary manages the honorary degrees process at Penn. All members of the University community are welcome to submit nominations. For information about qualifications and nominating honorary degree candidates, visit the University Secretary's Honorary Degrees webpage.

Past Penn's Commencement Speakers and Honorary Degree Recipients

Address & Phone

1 College Hall, Room 211
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 898-7006