University Affairs

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to Speak at USU's 135th Commencement

The 135th Logan campus commencement ceremony will be Thursday, May 5. (USU/Levi Sim photo)

LOGAN, Utah — Thomas J. Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, will serve as USU’s commencement speaker for its 135th Logan campus commencement ceremony this spring, which will be conducted in person at the Dee Glenn Smith Spectrum for the first time in two years.

Vilsack, philanthropist Lisa Eccles, and former Utah legislator Lyle W. Hillyard will receive honorary doctorate degrees during the ceremony on Thursday, May 5.

“We are honored that Secretary Vilsack has accepted our invitation to address our students this year,” said USU President Noelle E. Cockett. “His leadership and service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have positively impacted rural communities. Over the years, he has advocated on behalf of land-grant universities like USU and will be an inspiration to our graduating students, alumni and the Aggie community.”

Conferring honorary degrees enables universities to recognize and honor individuals for their sacrifices and commitment to making positive changes in the world.

The 135th USU commencement will begin at 9 a.m. with a processional on the Logan campus, starting on the Quad at 8:30 a.m. The commencement ceremony will include the awarding of honorary degrees, the announcement of university-wide faculty awards, and commencement speeches.

Colleges and campuses are planning individual convocation and graduation ceremonies, as well. Please see the Logan campus webpage for information about college convocation and hooding ceremonies, and the Statewide Campuses schedule webpage for details about ceremonies in Blanding, Brigham City, Eastern, Kaysville, Moab, Southwest, Tooele and Uintah Basin.


Thomas J. Vilsack served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Barack Obama for two terms and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve again in that role under President Joe Biden. Vilsack has been a strong supporter of land-grant universities like Utah State University and has helped bring science, research and technology to the forefront in helping to address modern agriculture and land-management challenges.

Under Vilsack’s leadership, the USDA is spearheading a transformation of the food system by creating more, better, and fairer markets for producers and consumers, engaging the agriculture and forestry sectors in voluntary, incentive-based climate solutions, strengthening rural and historically underserved communities, and ensuring Americans have consistent access to safe, healthy and affordable food.

Additionally, the USDA has announced millions of dollars in investments that have positively impacted rural Utah infrastructure, job training, business expansion and technical assistance, including projects in Cache County, Brigham City, Price and Moab.

As the Western U.S. has more recently struggled with extreme drought, Vilsack led a process that eliminated bureaucratic hurdles and ensured that Utah's agriculture producers received the maximum assistance allowed by law. He has taken a personal interest in finding solutions that benefit forest lands in Utah and other Western states, recently announcing a 10-year, multibillion-dollar plan to reduce the fire risk on up to 50 million acres near communities.

Prior to returning to the USDA under Biden’s leadership, he served as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council from 2017 until February 2021. Vilsack has been honored for his public service and work to advance American agriculture by several organizations, including the Congressional Hunger Center and the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. He is a former member of the board of directors for GenYOUth as well as Feeding America.

Vilsack is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was born into an orphanage and adopted in 1951. After graduating from law school, he moved to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, where he practiced law. Although Vilsack had no upbringing in agriculture, he became familiar with it during the 1980s farm crisis. Working for a small-town law firm in Iowa, he helped local farmers who were struggling with bankruptcy.

Before his appointment under President Obama, Vilsack served two terms as the governor of Iowa, served in the Iowa State Senate and as the mayor of Mt. Pleasant. He received his bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College and his law degree from Albany Law School in New York.


Lisa Eccles is president, chief operating officer and board member of the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation — one of Utah’s largest philanthropic foundations, providing grants to more than 400 nonprofits each year. In that role, she directs the foundation’s statewide programs, which have awarded more than $750 million since 1982 in focus areas that include arts and culture, community/social services, education, health and wellness, and preservation/conservation.

At USU, Eccles’ involvement and foundation leadership have impacted the campus, faculty, students and alumni for decades — from its early grant for the George S. Eccles Business Building to, most recently, its funding to assist in creating the new USU Moab campus. Under Eccles’ direction, the foundation’s university-wide generosity has not only provided long-term funding for programs such as the George S. Eccles Distinguished Lecture in Business, but also grants for scholarships across disciplines ranging from the arts to engineering, including first-generation scholarship’s at USU regional campuses.

The Eccles family has deep roots in Cache Valley. Lisa Eccles’ great-grandparents, David and Ellen Stoddard Eccles, raised nine children at their historic mansion on Center Street in Logan. Seven of those children established charitable foundations that have benefited USU across all eight of the university’s colleges, including the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services and the Caine College of the Arts.

Eccles also serves as director of the Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Family Foundation and the Eccles family-owned hotel, the Goldener Hirsch, in Deer Valley. A graduate of the University of Utah with an Art History degree, she has enjoyed serving Utah’s cultural community on boards such as the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera and Utah Heritage Foundation. She has also served on many other boards both nationally and in Utah, including Intermountain Healthcare’s Community Care Foundation.


Logan resident and Cache Valley native Lyle W. Hillyard has spent decades supporting Utah State University through philanthropic means and policy advocacy.

After enrolling at USU in 1958, he later graduated with honors in 1965. Then, he obtained a law degree and returned to the community to establish a law firm, now known as Hillyard, Anderson & Olsen, or HAO, in 1967. He spent 40 years as a member of the Utah House of Representatives and Utah Senate, serving in high-ranking positions that provided a valuable voice for northern Utah and USU.

Hillyard’s leadership has been key to retaining support for USU Extension programs during state budget cuts, saving programs that help families and individuals statewide. His advocacy has also helped USU grow and remain committed to its land-grant mission.

Additionally, Hillyard’s political support for the state’s special education teachers helped secure ongoing appropriations for the ASSERT (Autism Support Services: Education, Research, and Training) program in USU’s Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation. He and his wife, Alice, established a scholarship endowment in the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services.

Hillyard advocated for state investment in facilities at the USU Animal Science Farm in Wellsville, and in honor of his support in this key area, the Matt Hillyard Animal, Teaching and Research Center was named after his son in 2008.

At USU, Hillyard has been honored with awards for Distinguished Service, Professional Achievement, Community Associate, and Friend of USU Extension, and named Robins Alumnus of the Year. He has also been named an Honorary Colonel by the Utah Highway Patrol, Outstanding Citizen of the Year by the Cache Chamber of Commerce, and State Senator of the Year by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

For more information on USU’s 135th commencement, visit the commencement website.

Thomas J. Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, will speak at Utah State University's 135th commencement. During the ceremony Thursday, May 5, Vilsack will receive an honorary degree.

Philanthropist Lisa Eccles will receive an honorary degree at Utah State University's 135th commencement.

Former Utah legislator Lyle W. Hillyard will receive an honorary degree at Utah State University's 135th commencement.


Emilie Wheeler
News Director
University Marketing and Communications


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