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Princeton awards seven honorary degrees

Tue May 28, 2024

Princeton University awarded honorary degrees to the following recipients during the 2024 Commencement ceremony on Tuesday, May 28. 

Lamar Alexander

Doctor of Laws

Lamar Alexander is a former two-term Republican governor (1979-1987) and three-term U.S. senator (2003-2021) from Tennessee. He was U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush from 1991 to 1993 and president of the University of Tennessee from 1988 to 1991. While governor, Alexander was chairman of the National Governors Association and President Reagan’s Commission on Americans Outdoors. He served as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference from 2008 to 2012. As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee from 2015 to 2021, he steered dozens of bills into law including legislation fixing No Child Left Behind; 21st Century Cures, accelerating approval of new medicines including vaccines, tests, and treatments that helped tame the COVID-19 pandemic; and the Great American Outdoors Act, funding national parks and other public lands. In private life, Alexander cofounded a Nashville law firm and two successful businesses. A seventh-generation East Tennessean, he is also a classical and country pianist and the author of seven books.

Vanderbilt University (B.A., 1962)

New York University (J.D., 1965)

Admired for his legacy of substantive and bipartisan policy initiatives as a United States senator, secretary of education, and governor of Tennessee, he steered dozens of bills into law as chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. His tenacity against partisan headwinds helped to resolve vexing issues in federal education policy and to reaffirm support for scientific research as a Congressional imperative. The seventh-generation Tennessean has also served the Volunteer State as president of the University of Tennessee. Beyond his prodigious record of accomplishment in government, he is a successful lawyer and businessman, was a decorated student-athlete and record-setting track star at Vanderbilt University, and is a talented classical and country music pianist who has performed at the Grand Ole Opry. The proud son of a preschool teacher and elementary school principal, his record of accomplishment on behalf of educational priorities both honors the legacy of his parents and serves the nation’s highest ideals.

Rubén Blades Bellido de Luna

Doctor of Music

Composer, vocalist, actor, and activist Rubén Blades has recorded more than twenty-five albums and has won a total of twenty-three Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards. Born in Panama and one of the most successful salsa musicians of all time, he played a key role in the “salsa revolution” in New York City in the 1970s. His work has had a profound influence on Latin and Latin American music over the last five decades. In 2021, he was named Person of the Year by the Latin Recording Academy. Blades has collaborated with rock, jazz, pop, hip-hop, reggaeton, and salsa musicians. He has been recognized for his contributions to the arts by Spain’s Ministry of Culture and Sport, Chile’s National Council of Culture and the Arts, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and other organizations. An Emmy-nominated actor who has starred in television and movie roles, Blades was the subject of the award-winning documentary Yo No Me Llamo Rubén Blades. Beyond his artistic success, Blades is known for his political work and social activism. In the 1990s, he founded the political party Movimiento Papa Egoró in Panama and ran for president of the country in 1994. He served as Panama’s Minister of Tourism from 2004 to 2009 and was named a UN World Ambassador Against Racism in 2000.

University of Panama (B.A., 1974)

Harvard Law School (L.L.M., 1985)

A versatile composer and singer who also uses his voice and political acumen to advocate for justice, he has left an indelible mark on music and has made the world a more equitable place. Lin-Manuel Miranda, an admirer since childhood, called his songs “some of the most profound poetry I’ve ever heard.” Known for Afro-Cuban salsa influenced by rock, jazz, pop, and other genres, he has won a combined twenty-three Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards; he is also an Emmy-nominated actor. Born to humble circumstances in a rooming house in Panama, he would go on to run for president of the country after establishing the political party Movimiento Papa Egoró, or Mother Earth in the indigenous Emberá language. Celebrated by the United Nations in 2000 as World Ambassador Against Racism, he has continued to collaborate with new generations of musical artists inspired by his global impact.

Dr. Paula A. Johnson

Doctor of Laws

Dr. Paula A. Johnson was named the 14th president of Wellesley College in 2016, becoming the first Black woman to lead the liberal arts college dedicated to advancing women’s higher education. Johnson, a physician-scientist trained in internal and cardiovascular medicine, was previously the Grayce A. Young Family Professor of Medicine in Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School and a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Her medical career focused on improving the quality of care for women and women of color. Johnson established and was the first executive director of the Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She was chair of the state of Massachusetts’s higher education COVID-19 testing group and chaired the Boston Public Health Commission from 2007 to 2016. She has served on a number of state and national commissions related to women’s health, cardiovascular health, and women in science and engineering. In 2018, she co-chaired the committee that produced a groundbreaking comprehensive report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine regarding sexual harassment of women in academic science, engineering, and medicine. Johnson is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Harvard Radcliffe Colleges (B.A., 1980)

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (M.P.H., 1985)

Harvard Medical School (M.D., 1985)

As a physician-scientist and college president, her cross-disciplinary work at the intersection of education, medicine, and social justice has helped advance the well-being of generations of women. In a remarkable career as a healthcare leader, she blazed trails in the study of population and public health, influenced health policy, and set in motion a pivotal movement in health equity for women at the pathbreaking Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her “lifelong quest” to combat gender biases took a new turn in 2016 when she was named the 14th president of Wellesley College, becoming the first Black woman to lead the 154-year-old institution. With an unwavering commitment to “inclusive excellence,” she is a true champion for women’s higher education, pioneering new opportunities for Wellesley students at the nexus of science, technology, the humanities, and the social sciences.

Randall Kennedy

Doctor of Laws

Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he has served on the faculty since 1984. He is a legal scholar whose work bridges the topics of law, race, civil rights, free expression, politics, and history. His books include Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History, and Culture (2021), For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law (2013), The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (2011), Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (2008), and Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (2003). After graduating from Princeton in 1977, Kennedy studied at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and earned his law degree from Yale Law School. He is a member of the bar of the District of Columbia and the Supreme Court of the United States. Earlier in his career, he served as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the United States Court of Appeals. Kennedy is a member of the American Law Institute, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Association. He was a Princeton University trustee from 1994 to 1998 and from 2005 to 2015, and was the Princeton Class of 2016’s Baccalaureate speaker.

Princeton University (A.B., 1977)

Yale Law School (J.D., 1982)

A lawyer, legal scholar, and author, as well as a Princeton alumnus and emeritus trustee, he is a foremost scholar of race and the law. His voice is a cool clarion in the national discourse, bringing depth and nuance to the conversation over his forty-year tenure at Harvard Law School. Born in 1954 in South Carolina, he moved as a child from the segregated South to Washington, D.C.; later, as a young lawyer, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Always eager to engage opposing viewpoints thoughtfully, he has been hailed by former Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow as “a public intellectual of the first order in the United States in a time of enormous division and polarization.” Said Minow, in the Harvard Law Bulletin: “Frankly, we could use a lot more of what he brings to the world.”

Mark A. Milley

Doctor of Laws

Retired General Mark A. Milley served as the 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2019 to 2023. As the country’s highest-ranking military officer, Milley was the military adviser to the President, Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council. Milley served as the 39th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army from 2015 to 2019. Before that, he was the 21st Commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, having earlier served in six Army divisions and Special Forces. His joint military assignments included the Joint Staff Operations Directorate and military assistant to the Secretary of Defense. He helped lead U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and elsewhere. A member of Princeton’s Class of 1980, Milley was commissioned as an officer through Princeton Army ROTC and has returned to campus to serve as keynote speaker at recent ROTC Commissioning ceremonies. In 2016, he received the Woodrow Wilson Award, the University’s highest honor in recognition of undergraduate alumni. Milley has master’s degrees in international relations from Columbia University and in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College. He is also a graduate of the MIT Seminar XXI National Security Studies Program. He is currently a visiting lecturer and the Charles and Marie Robertson Visiting Professor in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Princeton (A.B., 1980)

Columbia University (M.A., 1992)

U.S. Naval War College (M.A., 2000)

“A patriot uncompromising in his duty, unflinching in the face of danger, and unwavering in the service to the country,” as President Biden has described him, he has secured through his brave defense of the United States Constitution a place in this nation’s history. Commissioned through Princeton Army ROTC, he went on to become the highest-ranking military officer in the United States, serving as the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he addresses newly sworn officers, he welcomes them as fellow warriors in service to the founding document they are sworn to defend. As he told the Princeton ROTC Class of 2022: “You’re taking an oath to an idea, the idea that is America. And you will do anything and everything—if necessary, sacrifice even your life—to preserve that idea, and pass it on unscathed to the next generation.”

Joyce Carol Oates

Doctor of Humane Letters

Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, joined Princeton’s faculty in 1978 and has taught generations of writers in her creative writing seminars. She has been a seminal figure in shaping Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing. In her decades-long career, she has published more than 150 titles across genres. Her novel them won the 1970 National Book Award, and three of her novels and two of her short story collections were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Born in rural upstate New York and educated as a child in a one-room schoolhouse, she is the first in her family to finish high school and the first to attend college. She won Mademoiselle magazine’s college short story contest at age nineteen while attending Syracuse University on a scholarship and has since received dozens of noteworthy literary prizes. In 2011, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. In 2012, she received Princeton’s Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities. Many of the students whom Oates has taught have gone on to build prestigious writing careers. She transferred to emeritus status in 2015 and continues to teach.

Syracuse University (B.A., 1960)

University of Wisconsin–Madison (M.A., 1961)

One of America’s most decorated authors and a giant in the Princeton pantheon, she has written more than 150 titles across nearly every genre—novels, novellas, poetry, short fiction, children’s fiction, detective fiction, horror fiction, plays, nonfiction, literary criticism, memoir, and a noteworthy libretto for an opera. She is the recipient of the National Book Award, for her novel them, and was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama “for her contributions to American letters.” In her heart, she is also and always a teacher, to the enduring gratitude of generations of Princeton students. At a University event held in her honor prior to her retirement, she memorably told her audience of admirers: “Writing is just something that one does. If I have to put it down on some form, I write ‘teacher.’”

Terrence J. Sejnowski

Doctor of Science

Terrence J. Sejnowski is the Francis Crick Chair and professor and laboratory head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He is also a distinguished professor and codirector of the Institute for Neural Computation and director of Training Programs in Cognitive Neuroscience and Computational Neurobiology at the University of California San Diego. Sejnowski is a leader in the field of computational neuroscience and a pioneer in the development of neural networks and learning algorithms for artificial intelligence based on the brain. His lab is focused on creating and refining computational models that explore how particular cells and signals function to form thoughts and memories, to direct our attention, and to accomplish other activities. Sejnowski has published more than 1,000 scientific papers, reports, and book chapters and numerous books, including The Deep Learning Revolution in 2018; his next book, ChatGPT and the Future of AI: The Deep Language Revolution, is slated for publication this fall. He previously served on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University and was a Wiersma Visiting Professor of Neurobiology and a Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar at the California Institute of Technology. His many awards and honors include the 2024 Brain Prize from the Lundbeck Foundation, the 2024 Helmholtz Prize from the International Neural Network Society, and the 2022 Gruber Neuroscience Prize. Sejnowski is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Inventors, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Case Western Reserve University (B.S., 1968)

Princeton University (Ph.D., 1978)

At the dawn of an era where artificial intelligence promises to transform our understanding of human biology, he stands among the foremost pioneers. His inventive use of physics, mathematics, and statistics to study the brain, and his development of artificial intelligence tools to harness complex data, have served to revolutionize the practice of neuroscience research. In application, his pursuits at Salk Institute’s Computational Neurobiology Laboratory have opened promising new windows into the basis of neurological disorders such as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. Earlier this year, he was recognized with the Lundbeck Foundation Brain Prize—a preeminent global neuroscience honor—for his “seminal” insights in the field. In bestowing the award, the foundation commended the Princeton Graduate School alumnus for five decades of devotion to the discipline and for “a determination, courage, and persistence” that should “serve as an inspiration for other scientists.”