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Actress and singer-songwriter Idina Menzel will be Penn’s Commencement speaker at the Class of 2023 graduation ceremony (Photo courtesy of John Russo).

Actress and singer-songwriter Idina Menzel will deliver Penn’s Commencement speech at the Class of 2023 graduation ceremony. 

Penn will award Menzel, a Tony award-winning actress, an honorary Doctor of Arts at the ceremony, according to an announcement from Vice President and University Secretary Medha Narvekar. At the 267th Commencement — which will take place May 15 at Franklin Field — graduates will be granted degrees, honorary degree recipients will be celebrated, and University officials and the commencement speaker will deliver remarks.

Menzel is well known for a variety of performances on the Broadway stage and big screen, including Maureen in the musical “Rent,” the original Elphaba in the musical “Wicked,” and as the voice of Elsa in the Oscar-winning Disney film “Frozen.” In “Frozen,” Menzel sang “Let it Go,” which became a Billboard Top 10 hit and won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2014. 

Menzel is the first artist to win a Tony Award for acting and have a song become a Billboard Top 10 hit. Her additional credits include “Uncut Gems,” “Enchanted,” “If/Then,” “Hair,” and “Aida.” In December 2022, she released a documentary titled “Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage?” which tracks how she reached a lifelong dream of headlining a concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. 

"We are extremely pleased that Idina Menzel will be addressing this year’s graduating class at Commencement," Penn President Liz Magill wrote in the announcement. "Ms. Menzel has contributed so much to America’s creative body of work and brought joy to us all. A tremendous role model for pursuing your passion with hard work and determination, she is also devoted to creating opportunities for others through the arts. I know it will be a memorable day for our students and their families.”

In addition to Menzel, the 2023 Commencement ceremony’s honorary degree recipients are Brent Staples, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and Jean Bennett, according to the University announcement.

Staples, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and member of the New York Times editorial board, will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters. He won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing in 2019 for a series of essays about the history of racism in the United States, which the Pulitzer Prize Board described as documenting “extraordinary moral clarity.”

Banerjee is a book author and economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he co-founded a global research center that is dedicated to amplifying the use of scientific evidence in poverty alleviation policies. The center is called the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. In 2019, he won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research in development economics. Penn will award Banerjee an honorary Doctor of Laws.

Banerjee co-founded J-PAL with Esther Duflo, an award-winning economics professor at MIT who will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws from Penn. Duflo's work focuses on issues such as health, education, and financial inclusivity. With Banerjee, she wrote two books about fighting global poverty and modern economies, called “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” and “Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems” respectively. 

Bell Burnell, who will receive an honorary Doctor of Sciences, is the chancellor of the University of Dundee in Scotland and a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford. She discovered pulsars, which are “considered one of the most important astronomical advances of the 20th century,” according to the University’s announcement. In 2018, she donated a $3 million prize to the Institute of Physics to establish scholarships for underrepresented groups in the field and has led numerous organizations in academia and astronomy. 

Bennett, a Perelman School of Medicine professor in ophthalmology, has spent 30 years working on gene therapy for retinal diseases, leading to the first FDA-approved gene therapy for a rare form of visual impairment in humans. In 2021, she co-founded Opus Genetics, which aims to give attention to gene therapies for rare conditions that “have been neglected by the pharmaceutical industry.” Bennett will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Sciences.