fb-pixel Skip to main content

A center for social change at Northeastern that won’t be afraid to take chances

Seeded with a $20 million donation from the family of the late Nonnie Burnes, it will focus on finding practical solutions to problems.

Nonnie Burnes in 2007, when she was the state's insurance commissioner.Wiggs, Jonathan Globe Staff

When Nonnie Burnes was a superior court judge, the talk of the courthouse was how she liked to commute via Razor scooter over the Longfellow Bridge. Whether she did so wearing her black robe, well, that has become a matter of lore.

Burnes was indeed one of a kind. She passed away in August at the age of 79 after a nine-month battle with cancer. Before her diagnosis, she and her husband, Rick Burnes, a founder of Charles River Ventures, had started to think about launching a center dedicated to social justice at Northeastern University, where she had attended law school, served as a trustee, and taught law.


She spent the last months of her life putting the finishing touches on the center, including hiring a director, and now Northeastern is announcing that her family has donated $20 million to seed the Burnes Center for Social Change.

“Our thinking is that basically the world needs some refocusing and opening up of opportunities for more people,” said Rick Burnes. “That’s a real key driver to this.”

Don’t mistake this for just another think tank or policy school. The Burnes family wants the center to drive real-world change, focusing less on studies and more on solutions. The idea is to develop the next generation of problem-solvers to take on society’s most intractable issues, from climate change to urban education reform.

It chose Northeastern — Rick’s alma mater is Harvard — because of its ethos of hands-on learning embodied by a cooperative program that gives students work experience while pursuing an academic degree. Prior to the center, the Burneses’ major donation consisted of launching (in 1998) and funding Northeastern’s Public Interest Law Scholars Program, which provides financial support for law students with experience in social justice.


“Northeastern is a completely different class from the rest of the universities,” said Rick. “The cooperative program brings a culture of doing.”

That notion of being “a doer” also reflects how Nonnie Burnes lived her life.

While raising three children, Burnes attended law school at Northeastern, then became a partner at Boston law firm Hill & Barlow at time when few women were allowed to attain that height. As an attorney, she worked on cases to help the state’s most vulnerable residents, including by improving the conditions at Massachusetts institutions for the developmentally disabled.

At a Planned Parenthood event. From left: event co-chairs Scott Nathan & Laura DeBonis; Dharma Cortas, board chair of PPLM; then-First Lady Diane Patrick; then-Governor Deval Patrick; and event co-chairs Nonnie & Rick Burnes. Steve Lipofsky

She served as a superior court judge for a decade and left the bench to become the insurance commissioner under Deval Patrick. Her big assignment: to deregulate the auto insurance industry in Massachusetts so consumers could benefit from the lower rates that come through competition.

“In many ways, this center represents what Nonnie has done all her life,” said Joseph Aoun, Northeastern’s president.

Because of Burnes’s diagnosis, there was a sense of urgency to get the center set up and hire the right director. The university recruited Beth Noveck from New York University, who brings an interdisciplinary approach to her work. The Harvard alum and Yale Law School graduate has spent her career at the intersection of academia, public policy, government, and technology, including serving as New Jersey’s first chief innovation officer under Governor Phil Murphy.

Noveck had a chance to meet Burnes before her passing. The Burneses wanted the center to work across all the colleges of Northeastern from social sciences and humanities to the law school.


“That horizontal vision of innovation is very unique and visionary,” said Noveck.

At the same time, the couple wanted the center’s focus to be on training activists and community leaders who aren’t at Northeastern in what Noveck describes as “democratizing an access to skills.” It comes from the idea that social innovation can be a learnable skill, and Noveck plans to use data, artificial intelligence, and technology to empower grassroots leaders.

What’s also important, Noveck noted, is that the center doesn’t decide which problems to solve.

“The problem needs to be defined by the people who we are trying to help, not by oneself and not starting with solution,” she said.

If that all sounds all at once ambitious and hard to grasp, Rick doesn’t mind.

“I want them to experiment,” he said. “I want them to fail at some things.”

In other words, the center should be fearless in driving social change. Just like Nonnie Burnes.

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.