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Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Frances Arnold, award-winning poet Joy Harjo, composer John Williams, public policy analyst David Miliband, as well as Penn's outgoing Chair of the Board of Trustees David Cohen and cultural advocate Elizabeth Alexander will receive honorary degrees from the school.

Credit: Pauline Colas

Penn will honor seven individuals with honorary degrees, celebrating their accomplishments in fields ranging from public policy to arts and entertainment.

This year's cohort of recipients includes Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Frances Arnold, award-winning poet Joy Harjo, composer John Williams, and public policy analyst David Miliband. Two Penn affiliates will also receive honorary degrees — outgoing Chair of the Board of Trustees David Cohen and cultural advocate Elizabeth Alexander, who earned her Ph.D. in English at Penn.

Elizabeth Alexander

Alexander, who graduated from Penn in 1992, will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. 

She is the president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest funder of arts, culture, and humanities in higher education. In her role, Alexander has helped reorient the foundation to focus on distributing grants through a social justice lens, prioritizing proposals that will create a more just society.

Alexander is a pivotal figure in Black poetry, as well as a major voice in Black literary criticism. Her accomplishments include writing and reciting her poem “Praise Song for the Day" at former President Barack Obama’s inauguration, as well as chairing the African American Studies Department at Yale University.

Frances Arnold

Arnold, the Linus Pauling professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, will receive an honorary doctor of sciences degree.

She won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018 for engineering new directed enzyme evolution methods to create efficient and sustainable ways to produce chemicals. She is the co-inventor of more than 60 United States patents and has co-founded three biotechnology companies.

President Joe Biden named Arnold the co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in January 2021.

“We have to reestablish the importance of science in policymaking, in decision making across the government," she said in a statement. "We need to reestablish the trust of the American people in science." 

David Cohen

Cohen, a 1981 Penn Law graduate, will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

He has served as the chair of the Board of Trustees since 2009, after he was first elected a University trustee in 2001.

Cohen is a senior advisor of the Comcast Corporation, a telecommunication and media organization that is home to NBCUniversal. He previously served as the senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer.

From 1992 to 1997, Cohen also served as chief of staff to former Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, who now teaches at Penn.

Joy Harjo

Harjo, the first Native American to be appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

She is an internationally acclaimed poet, writer, performer, and musician of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, having authored nine books of poetry and a memoir. Her poetry is often autobiographical, incorporates Indigenous storytelling and mythology, and is informed by feminism and social justice.

Harjo also performs both solo and with a band, and has produced six original music albums. Her memoirs include the award-winning "Crazy Brave" and "Poet War­rior: A Call for Love and Jus­tice."

David Miliband

Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

The IRC responds to humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives have been impacted by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and regain control of their livelihoods. Miliband has organized the agency's relief and development operations, refugee resettlement and assistance efforts, and advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C.

Miliband previously served as secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs in the United Kingdom, advocating for human rights abroad.

He has recently spoken out against the Biden Administration’s decision to maintain the Trump-era refugee admissions cap of 15,000 and called on the new administration to reverse it.

John Williams

Williams, a film and concert stage composer, will receive an honorary doctor of music degree.

He has composed the music and served as music director for films including "Jaws," "Jurassic Park," "Indiana Jones," and "Saving Private Ryan." He also composed the scores for all of the "Star Wars" movies and the first three "Harry Potter" movies.

Williams also contributed music to many Olympic Games, Obama's first inaugural ceremony, and NBC Sunday Night Football.

He has received the most Oscar nominations of any living person, with 52 nominations and five wins. Williams formerly served as the music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra and is currently its laureate conductor. 

Janet Yellen

Yellen, the 78th secretary of the treasury, will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

She is the first woman to hold the position, and she formerly served as the first woman chair of the Federal Reserve Board from 2014 to 2018.

She has served as a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, and a lecturer at the London School of Economics.

The primary focus of her scholarship is the causes, mechanisms, and implications of unemployment.

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