Yale awards nine honorary degrees

Yale awarded honorary degrees to nine individuals, in recognition of outstanding achievements or contribution to the common good, during its 323rd Commencement.
The nine recipients of Yale honorary degrees in 2024.

Front row, from left, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, Judith Rodin, Peter Salovey, Mahzarin Banaji, and Hortense Spillers. Second row, from left, László Lovász, Kehinde Wiley, Mario Capecchi, and Stephen Breyer. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

During its 323rd graduation ceremony on Monday, Yale conferred honorary degrees on nine individuals who have achieved distinction in their fields.

This year’s honorary degree recipients included the eminent social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji; retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer; Nobel Prize-winning molecular geneticist Mario Capecchi; health policy leader Risa Lavizzo-Mourey; mathematician and computer scientist László Lovász; research psychologist and global thought leader Judith Rodin; literary critic Hortense Spillers; and visual artist Kehinde Wiley ’01 M.F.A.

And also receiving an honorary degree was Yale President Peter Salovey, who presided over his final Commencement as Yale’s leader before his planned return to the faculty this summer.

The awarding of honorary degrees, which has been a Yale tradition since 1702, recognizes pioneering achievement or exemplary contribution to the common good.

The honorary degree recipients and their citations follow:

Mahzarin Banaji
Social psychologist
Doctor of Social Science

Groundbreaking scholar whose pioneering work has helped establish the role that unconscious processes play in governing human social action, you have educated us to appreciate how our judgment of others may spring, not from conscious dislike or animosity, but from implicit biases we do not recognize or understand. These ‘mind bugs’ occur outside of our awareness or control and give rise to prejudices based on race, gender, age, and other characteristics. Intrepid investigator whose work has opened minds and hearts by illuminating what leads us to categorize others, we are pleased to admit explicit bias in your favor as we honor a beloved former Yale faculty member with the degree of Doctor of Social Science.

Stephen Breyer
Jurist, retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Doctor of Laws

Supreme court justice for over a quarter century, you are known for your pragmatic philosophy, a belief that the judiciary must adapt to changing society and consider real-world consequences for human beings when deciding cases. Your fact and data-driven decisions in matters involving school integration, the rights of criminal suspects, a woman’s prerogative to control her own body, and many more, mark you as someone who shares Justice Holmes’ belief that the important thing is ‘not where we stand, but in what direction we are moving.’ Quintessential enlightenment man, Yale celebrates a justice who reminds us that judges must hew to principle, not politics, as we honor you with the degree of Doctor of Laws.

Mario Capecchi
Molecular geneticist
Doctor of Science

Born in Verona to a mother who was taken to Dachau, you lived alone on the streets during the Holocaust from age four, scrounging for food, until, through a set of miraculous circumstances, you were brought to the United States. Without any formal schooling until you were nine, you rose to share the Nobel Prize in medicine for the development of gene targeting in mouse embryo stem cells, a discovery that has led to major advancements in human disease, drug development, and more. Inspiring scientist, whose life lessons teach us all and whose story exemplifies the triumph of the human spirit, we award you the degree of Doctor of Science.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey
Health policy leader
Doctor of Medical Sciences

Trailblazing physician, geriatrician, and first woman and first African American to be president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, you have devoted your career to empowering communities and corporations to making equitable health care a shared value. Your persuasiveness has prevailed on big corporations to heed your cry of ‘Less sugar! Less sugar!’ and to help create a healthier America. Yale salutes a visionary who is insistent that all Americans — from every zip code in our nation — can live longer, healthier, better lives, as, with a big glass of delicious water, we toast and award you the degree of Doctor of Medical Sciences.

László Lovász
Mathematician and computer scientist
Doctor of Engineering and Technology

Brilliant mathematician and theoretical computer scientist, your pathbreaking contributions in combinatorics, a branch of pure mathematics, have led to real-life applications in computer science, engineering and technology, statistics, and science that serve and advance humankind.  Over time you have received nearly every award a mathematician can earn, including the Abel Prize, the highest award in mathematics. We are honored that you have agreed to receive one more, from the university where you taught and conducted research for over a half decade, and which itself is honored to present you with the degree of Doctor of Engineering and Technology.

Judith Rodin
Global thought leader
Doctor of Humane Letters

Pioneering leader who served as the first woman president of both the University of Pennsylvania and the Rockefeller Foundation, you have helped reshape two great institutions to face the needs of modern times. In both, your creative and forward-looking ideas — from health psychology to resilient cities — galvanized initiatives that emphasized change amidst challenge. Yale celebrates as well your twenty-two years in New Haven as a Yale faculty member, educator, dean of the graduate school, and university provost. A resilient and transformational leader wherever you go, Yale salutes an innovator we still think of as ‘one of our own,’ as we proudly confer on you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

Peter Salovey
President of Yale University
Doctor of Humane Letters

When you step down in June as Yale’s 23rd president, you will enter history as the Yale professor who has held more senior leadership positions at the university than anyone in its 322-year history. Beginning with your presidency of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate when you were a Ph.D. student, you have been, serially, chair of the Psychology Department, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, dean of Yale College, provost, and president — a cornucopia of senior positions held by no other Yale historical personage, ever.

When you were appointed, you said you hoped to help a great university create a more accessible, a more innovative, and a more excellent Yale. You have done all three. Yale now has a dramatically wider array of socioeconomic and geographic diversity across its student body, departments, and schools. New buildings have brought together scattered faculty who now work with and learn from each other. New Haven’s economy is strengthened because of your partnership with its mayor. And the new faculty and academic collaborations in schools and programs that you have prioritized have made Yale more innovative and forward looking in developing ways to address society’s greatest challenges.

From the start of your presidency your stated aim has been inspiring Yale as a community where students, staff, and faculty collaborate with one another to make a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. As you return now to the faculty after a suitable rest, no doubt to galvanize students as the excellent teacher you always have been, Yale offers its thanks, as we gratefully confer on you your fourth Yale degree, doctor of Humane Letters.

Hortense Spillers
Literary critic
Doctor of Humanities

Inspiring Black feminist theorist and critic, your foundational work, embedded in your deep historical and literary knowledge, challenges received thought and provides us a profound understanding of how race and gender shape the modern world. In three books and dozens of essays, you rewrite the American grammar book, claiming the insurgent ground as you revolutionize how we consider and write about our nation’s history and culture. Pioneering thinker, we celebrate the marvels of your inventiveness, and your enduring contributions to letters, as we proudly confer on you the degree of Doctor of Humanities.

Kehinde Wiley ’01 M.F.A.
Visual artist
Doctor of Fine Arts

Internationally renowned painter and sculptor, whose portrait of President Obama hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, your arresting portraits, like all pioneering art, break the category, depicting ‘common’ people in traditional styles that raise questions about privilege, power, authority, and representation. Artist recognized around the world for your vibrant and imaginative work, and an awardee of the W.E.B. Du Bois medal for ‘contributions to African and African American culture, and advocacy for intercultural understanding and human rights,’ Yale honors you with a second Yale degree, Doctor of Fine Arts.


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Part of the In Focus Collection: Celebrating Yale 2024