Commencement Speaker and Honorary Degree Recipients

May 2021 Ceremony - Speaker and Honorary Degree Recipients:

Laurene Powell Jobs, C’85, W’85, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters and 2021 Commencement Speaker
Impact investor and social justice advocate
Founder and President, Emerson Collective
Founder and Board Chair, College Track
Co-Founder and Board Chair, The XQ Institute 

Laurene Powell Jobs, our 2021 Commencement speaker, is founder and president of Emerson Collective, which is dedicated to the pursuit of a more equal and just world. Emerson Collective deploys a range of tools—from impact investing to philanthropy to advocacy—to lift up entrepreneurs, leaders, innovators, and creators working to build such a world and advance progress in critical areas, including education, immigration, climate, and cancer research and treatment.

Ms. Powell Jobs’ commitment to renewing America’s social systems deepened over two decades ago with her work in education. In 1997, she founded College Track, a college completion program where she remains board chair, to combat the alarming achievement gap among students of color. She is also cofounder and board chair of The XQ Institute, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to rethinking the high school experience. In keeping with her belief in supporting journalism as a vital civic institution, Laurene is co-owner of The Atlantic, and she is also co-owner of Anonymous Content and Concordia Studio. 

Ms. Powell Jobs earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania College of Arts and Sciences and a B.S. in economics from The Wharton School. During her time at Penn, Ms. Powell Jobs worked at Penn Student Agencies, founding UPenn Special Deliveries, waited tables at Smokey Joe’s, and studied abroad in Paris. She has served on the National Advisory Board of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. After graduating from Penn, she worked at Goldman Sachs before earning an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Ms. Powell Jobs serves on the Stanford University Board of Trustees and the boards of Chicago CRED, Conservation International, The Council on Foreign Relations, Elemental Excelerator, where she is board chair, and Nia Tero. In addition, she is a member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Ernest C. Arbuckle Award for managerial excellence and addressing the changing needs of society.

Elizabeth Alexander, GR'92, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters
Poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate
President, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Decorated poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate Elizabeth Alexander is president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in higher education. With more than two decades of experience leading innovative programs in education, philanthropy, and beyond, Dr. Alexander builds partnerships to support the arts and humanities while strengthening educational institutions and cultural organizations worldwide. Dr. Alexander was previously the Ford Foundation’s Director of Creativity and Free Expression, where she co-designed the Art for Justice Fund, using art and advocacy to address the crisis of mass incarceration, and guided efforts in examining how the arts and visual storytelling can empower communities.

She is author or co-author of fourteen books and twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, including for her 2015 memoir, The Light of the World. Her works include Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010, Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, American Sublime, The Black Interior: Essays, Antebellum Dream Book, Body of Life, and The Venus Hottentot.

She earned her B.A. from Yale University, M.A. from Boston University, and Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Through her distinguished career in education, Dr. Alexander inspired a generation of students. She served as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. For fifteen years, she taught at Yale University where she helped rebuild the school's African American Studies department and was appointed Yale's inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry. Dr. Alexander also taught at Smith College and the University of Chicago.

Accolades for her work include the Jackson Poetry Prize, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the George Kent Award, the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes for Poetry.  She is Chancellor Emeritus of the Academy of American Poets, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on the board of the Pulitzer Prize.

Frances H. Arnold, Honorary Doctor of Sciences
Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, California Institute of Technology
2018 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry

Frances Arnold is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology. She is the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her pioneering work in directed enzyme evolution methods, which she has used to expand the catalytic repertoire of enzymes and develop efficient, sustainable ways to produce chemicals. In January 2021, President Biden named her to Co-Chair the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Dr. Arnold also serves on the Advisory Panel of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowships in Science and Engineering and the Board of Trustees of the Gordon Research Conferences. She is the co-inventor on more than 60 U.S. patents and the co-founder of the biotechnology companies Gevo, Provivi, and Aralez Bio. Dr. Arnold also serves on several private and public company boards.

A native of Pennsylvania, Dr. Arnold earned a B.S. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

In recognition of her work, Dr. Arnold received the Charles Stark Draper Prize of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in 2011 and the Millennium Technology Prize from The Technology Academy Finland in 2016. In 2013, Dr. Arnold was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Obama. It is the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement. She has been elected to the National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. A Foreign Member of the United Kingdom Royal Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Dr. Arnold was elected to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2019.

David L. Cohen, L'81, Honorary Doctor of Laws
Senior Advisor of Comcast Corporation
Chair, Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania

David L. Cohen is a Senior Advisor of the Philadelphia-based Comcast Corporation, one of the largest telecommunications and media organizations worldwide and the parent company of NBCUniversal. Mr. Cohen also serves as senior counselor to the CEO. After many years as Senior Executive Vice President and Comcast’s first Chief Diversity Officer, in 2020 he moved from his leadership roles in a broad portfolio of responsibilities, including corporate communications and administration, government, regulatory, public, and legal affairs, and community impact. Prior to Comcast, Mr. Cohen was a partner and Chairman of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP, one of the country’s 100 largest law firms.

A native of New York, Mr. Cohen completed his undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College and received his JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. From 1992 to 1997, Mr. Cohen served as Chief of Staff to the Honorable Edward G. Rendell, Mayor of the City of Philadelphia. There, he played a critical coordinating role in significant budgetary and financial issues, economic development and collective bargaining negotiations, and many other issues relating to the city.

Since 2009, Mr. Cohen has served as Chair of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania and its Executive Committee. A member of the Trustee Board and Executive Committee of Penn Medicine newly reorganized in 2002, he was its chair for seven years. Mr. Cohen was first elected a University Trustee in 2001.

Mr. Cohen also serves on both the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and on the Chamber’s CEO Council for Growth.  He is also Chair of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, a member of the United States Semiquincentennial Commission and the Kimmel Center President’s Leadership Council, and chairs the 2026 FIFA World Cup Philadelphia Bid Committee. 

He is also Chair of the national boards of City Year and its Executive Committee and the National Urban League, and chairs the Corporate Advisory Board of UnidosUS.  He is a member of the Board of Directors of FS Global Credit Opportunities Fund, and of the Board of Directors of the PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. and PNC Bank, National Association.

For his years of civic and charitable engagement, Mr. Cohen has been honored by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Red Cross, and the 4-H. His awards also include the William Way Community Center Amicus in Res Award, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s William Penn Award, Spirit of Asian American Award, the Jewish National Fund Tree of Life Award, the Minority Media Telecommunications Council Digital Equality Award and the Minority Corporate Counsel Lifetime Achievement Award, and Kappa Alpha Psi’s “Distinguished Citizens Award.” He has consistently been named to Black Enterprise magazine’s list of top corporate diversity executives. 

Joy Harjo, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters
Poet, writer, performer, and musician of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation
23rd United States Poet Laureate

Joy Harjo is an internationally renowned award-winning poet, writer, performer, and musician of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. The author of nine books of poetry and a memoir, in 2019 Ms. Harjo was appointed the 23rd United States Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold the position.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ms. Harjo studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts, receiving her B.A. at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and M.F.A at the University of Iowa. Her poetry collections include An American Sunrise, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, and She Had Some Horses. Ms. Harjo’s memoir Crazy Brave won the PEN USA Literary Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the American Book Award. Soul Talk, Song Language is a collection of her essays and interviews. She also co-edited two anthologies of contemporary Native women’s writing and authored the award-winning books The Good Luck Cat for childrenand the young adult For A Girl Becoming.

Ms. Harjo performs saxophone internationally, solo and with her band The Arrow Dynamics. She has six music and poetry albums, including this year’s I Pray for My Enemies, as well asRed Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears and Winding Through the Milky Way, for which she received a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year in 2009. She has also widely performed her one-woman show, “Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light.”

Ms. Harjo is the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and the Rasmuson United States Artist Fellowship. Her many awards include the Jackson Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. She is currently at work on her next memoir and a commission by the Public Theater of New York for a musical restoring southeastern natives to the American story of blues and jazz.

David Miliband, Honorary Doctor of Laws
Public policy analyst
President and CEO, International Rescue Committee
Former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, member of Parliament, United Kingdom

Public policy analyst Right Honorable David Miliband is the President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their future. In more than 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities, IRC teams provide clean water, shelter, health care, education, and empowerment support to refugees and displaced people. Through international partnerships, IRC has served tens of millions and has raised awareness about human rights, protection principles, and gender-based violence. Since 2013, Mr. Miliband has overseen the agency’s relief and development operations, its refugee resettlement and assistance programs, and the IRC’s advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C. and beyond on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Mr. Miliband has had a distinguished political career in the United Kingdom. From 2007 to 2010, he served as the youngest Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in three decades, driving advancements in human rights and representing the United Kingdom throughout the world. Mr. Miliband was also a member of Parliament from 2001 to 2013. He began his career at the Institute for Public Policy Research and was named by former Prime Minister Tony Blair as his Policy Unit head.

Completing his undergraduate studies at Oxford University, Mr. Miliband received his master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Kennedy Scholar. He is also the author of Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time. As the son of refugees, he brings a personal commitment to the IRC's work to rescue the dignity and hopes of refugees and displaced people. In 2016, Mr. Miliband was named one of the World’s Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine. In 2018 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

John Williams, Honorary Doctor of Music
Composer and musical director for film and concert stage
Former music Director, the Boston Pops Orchestra
Recipient of five Academy Awards

With a career spanning over five decades, John Williams is one of America’s most accomplished and successful composers for film and the concert stage. Mr. Williams has composed the music and served as music director for over one hundred films. His 45-year artistic partnership with director Steven Spielberg is evidenced in many of Hollywood’s most acclaimed films, including Schindler’s List, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones films, and Saving Private Ryan.  He also composed the scores for all nine Star Wars films and the first three of the Harry Potter film series. Mr. Williams served for years as music director of the American musical institution, the Boston Pops Orchestra; he maintains thriving artistic relationships with many of the world’s great orchestras. 

Born in New York, Mr. Williams’ family moved to Los Angeles when he was a teenager. After military service, he attended New York’s Juilliard School. Returning west, he began his film industry career, writing music for more than 200 television films early on. His career grew with compositions for public events including “Liberty Fanfare” for the 1986 Statue of Liberty rededication. He also contributed music for many Olympic games and for President Obama’s first inaugural ceremony. His concert stage compositions include two symphonies and several concertos premiered by a number of leading orchestras.

Mr. Williams has received five Academy Awards and 52 Oscar nominations, the most nominations of any living person.  He also has seven British Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, five Emmys, twenty-five Grammys, and numerous gold and platinum records. Recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, the Princess of Asturias Award for the Arts, the Olympic Order, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Trustees Award, Mr. Williams is the first composer to receive the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he continues his roles as Boston Pops Laureate Conductor and Artist-in-Residence at Tanglewood.

Janet L. Yellen, Honorary Doctor of Laws
Economist
78th United States Secretary of the Treasury
Former Chair, Federal Reserve Board and White House Council of Economic Advisors

Economist Janet L. Yellen is the 78th United States Secretary of the Treasury. The first woman to hold this position, she was also the first woman Chair of the Federal Reserve Board from 2014 to 2018. Dr. Yellen’s previous public service roles include as the Board’s Vice Chair, as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and as Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors. She is formerly a Distinguished Fellow in Residence with the Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution.
Dr. Yellen completed her undergraduate studies at Brown University and received her Ph.D. in economics from Yale University. Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, she was the Eugene E. and Catherine M. Trefethen Professor of Business and Professor of Economics and a faculty member since 1980. She was also assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, an economist at the Federal Reserve Board, and a lecturer at the London School of Economics. Dr. Yellen has authored numerous articles, as well as The Fabulous Decade: Macroeconomic Lessons from the 1990s, with Alan Blinder.

In 2012, Dr. Yellen was appointed Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association, for which she served as Vice President (2004-2005), and President (2020-2021).Dr. Yellen’s memberships include the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Economic Strategy Group of the Aspen Institute, the Group of Thirty. She was a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council and has served on the advisory boards of the Bloomberg New Economic Forum, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and Fix the Debt Coalition, and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth Steering Committee. She was elected an alumni fellow to the Yale Corporation from 2000 until 2006.

Her scholarship has covered a range of macroeconomic issues, with a special focus on the causes, mechanisms, and implications of unemployment.  Among Dr. Yellen’s many honors, Yale awarded her the Wilbur Cross Medal. In 2019, she also received the Truman Medal for Economic Policy from the Truman Library Institute.

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 website.

Past Penn's Commencement Speakers and Honorary Degree Recipients