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U.S. ambassador to Germany and former Penn president Amy Gutmann was among last year’s honorary degree recipients. Credit: Samantha Turner

Penn will honor six individuals with honorary degrees, celebrating their achievements in fields ranging from physics to the arts. 

This year’s cohort of recipients includes actress and singer-songwriter Idina Menzel, economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and author Brent Staples. One Penn affiliate will also receive an honorary degree — Professor Emerita of ophthalmology Jean Bennett. 

Idina Menzel

Menzel, an award-winning actress, singer-songwriter, producer, and writer, will receive an honorary Doctor of Arts and will deliver Penn’s 2023 Commencement speech on May 15. 

Menzel is best known for her voice role as Elsa in the 2013 Disney animated film “Frozen” and its sequel. Her song “Let It Go” reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and received an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2014. Prior to this, she won a 2004 Tony Award for her role as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the Broadway musical “Wicked.” She started her Broadway career with a leading role in the musical “Rent.” 

She is also the co-founder of A BroaderWay Foundation, which focuses on supporting girls from underserved communities through the arts. Menzel was named a 2014 Power of Women honoree by Variety for her work with the organization. 

Abhijit Banerjee 

Banerjee, the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws. 

Banerjee is a co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics and the inaugural winner of the Infosys Prize in Social Sciences, one of the highest monetary rewards in India for researchers of Indian origin. He co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab in 2003 and currently serves as co-director. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Econometric Society. 

In 2012, Banerjee served on former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. He has also written or edited eight books and directed two documentary films. 

Banerjee is married to fellow 2023 Penn honorary degree recipient and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Esther Duflo. 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Bell Burnell, an award-winning astrophysicist, will receive an honorary Doctor of Sciences. 

Bell Burnell discovered pulsars — pulsing radio stars — as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in the late 1960s. Her discovery won the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, although she was not named as one of the recipients. She became the first woman to serve as president of the Institute of Physics for the UK and Ireland in 2008 and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2014. She also served as president of the United Kingdom’s Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004. 

Bell Burnell was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2018. She donated the $3 million prize to the Institute of Physics to establish scholarships for underrepresented groups in physics. In addition to her scientific contributions, she is involved in higher education diversity efforts and co-edited an anthology of astronomical-themed poetry. 

Jean Bennett 

Bennett —  the F.M. Kirby Professor Emeritus of Opthamology at the Perelman School of Medicine — will receive an honorary Doctor of Sciences. 

Bennett was recruited in 1992 to work at Penn’s Scheie Eye Institute. Her team at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia developed the first gene therapy product to be approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. 

Recently, she co-founded Opus Genetics, which helps patients with rare conditions neglected by the pharmaceutical industry and their families.  

Esther Duflo

Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT, will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws. 

Duflo is a co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics and a 2014 winner of the Infosys Prize in Social Sciences. In 2009, Duflo also received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship for her work exploring poverty cycles of South Asia and Africa. She co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab in 2003 and currently serves as co-director. Her work is focused on global poverty, with a special focus on the impact of social policy. 

Duflo is married to fellow Penn 2023 honorary degree recipient and MIT professor Abhijit Banerjee. 

Brent Staples

Staples, a member of The New York Times editorial board, will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters. 

Staples has held his role at the Times since 1990, where he writes about politics and culture. In 2019, he received the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for a collection of essays about racial injustice in America. He was elected a fellow of the Society of American Historians in 2020. 

Prior to joining the Times editorial board, Staples was an editor at The New York Times Book Review. In addition to his work in writing, he has held roles as a visiting fellow at the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Yale University. 

Staples recently spoke at the Inaugural W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture in Public Social Science in February.