Groundbreaking sociologist and journalism pioneer will receive honorary degrees at Northeastern commencement

Headshots of Albexrto Ibargüen and Alondra Nelson.
Alberto Ibargüen and Alondra Nelson. Photos by Gesi Schilling and Dan Komoda

Northeastern University will recognize an acclaimed sociologist and a journalism visionary with honorary degrees at its 2023 undergraduate commencement exercises.

President Joseph E. Aoun will confer honorary doctorates upon Alondra Nelson and Alberto Ibargüen at Fenway Park on Sunday, May 7.

A sociologist and author, Alondra Nelson is a groundbreaking advocate for scientific discovery and technology innovation that focuses on ethics, racial and gender equity, and access.

From early 2021 until February of this year, Nelson served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the newly created position of principal deputy director for science and society. 

Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is a visionary who applied the philanthropic power of the foundation’s multibillion-dollar endowment to reimagine daily journalism and the arts in the digital age.

Ibargüen, who is retiring this year after 18 years at the helm of the foundation, was serving in the late 1990s as publisher of the Knight Ridder newspapers in Miami when he recognized that the internet would diminish the capacity of traditional newspapers to influence and engage communities.

Alondra Nelson, Doctor of Public Service

In announcing Nelson’s appointment as principal deputy director, President Joe Biden noted her thought leadership on “the inequities and the power dynamics that sit beneath the surface of scientific research and the technology we build.”

During her tenure, which included eight months as acting OSTP director in 2022, Nelson led several initiatives to address those inequities. She spearheaded the development of the agency’s Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, outlining a set of principles for advancing social equity, transparency, and privacy in artificial-intelligence technologies. She also pushed through a policy directive to ensure public access to federally funded research the moment it is published.

Nelson’s impact at OSTP led the eminent research journal Nature to include her in its list of “Ten People Who Shaped Science in 2022,” observing that, “this social scientist made strides for equity, integrity and open access.”

Since stepping down from the agency, she has continued that quest. Nelson has returned to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey—from which she had taken a leave of absence to accept Biden’s appointment—and now serves as Harold F. Linder Professor in the IAS’s School of Social Science.

She is currently working on a book about science and technology policy in the Obama-Biden and Biden-Harris administrations, a collection of essays titled “Society after Pandemic,” and new research exploring the sociology of bioethics.

Nelson is the author or co-author of seminal books examining the intersections of science, technology, medicine, and social inequality, including Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination; Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life; and Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History.

Her essays, reviews, and commentary have been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Science, Le Nouvel Observateur, Nature, and on National Public Radio and PBS NewsHour.

Before joining the IAS, Nelson was a professor of sociology at Columbia University, where she also served as the inaugural Dean of Social Science. Nelson began her academic career on the faculty of Yale University.

Among her other appointments, she served as president and CEO of the Social Science Research Council, and held visiting professorships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and at the London School of Economics’ BIOS Centre.  

Nelson is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Council on Foreign Relations, and an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of California at San Diego and earned her doctorate from New York University. 

Alberto Ibargüen, Doctor of Humane Letters

The former publisher of the Miami Herald and the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald, Ibargüen became the sixth president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 2005.  

He led the creation of the Knight News Challenge in 2007, making endowment funds available to support innovative ideas for delivering local news and information on digital platforms. In the last five years, the foundation has invested $300 million in the challenge, as well as other programs designed to reinvent local news, develop new media business models, and better connect with communities through technology.

Ibargüen’s insight into the internet-driven sea change transforming print journalism also moved him to seek a fresh approach to the foundation’s mission to promote community engagement—an approach to help fill the gap left by struggling local newspapers.

Thus the arts, energized by the new possibilities inherent in the digital world, became a primary area of investment. During Ibargüen’s tenure, the foundation committed $466 million to the arts in its home base of Miami as well as in the 25 other U.S. cities and towns where the foundation operates.

As he explained in a New York Times interview, “The arts have the capacity to touch everybody, regardless of language, regardless of background.”

Ibargüen credits his pioneering success at the Knight Foundation to his newspaper background, which provided him with a strong community-minded focus.

Before taking over as publisher of the two Miami newspapers, Ibargüen served as an executive at New York’s Newsday for 11 years. He started his newspaper career as senior vice president for finance and administration at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, a position he took after working as an attorney in Hartford.

A post-college stint in the Peace Corps serving in the Amazon region of Venezuela and in Bogotá, Colombia, also sharpened Ibargüen’s community-building skills.

His current civic engagements include memberships on the boards of the Paley Center for Media and the National Museum of the American Latino. He previously served on the boards of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Wesleyan University, the Council on Foreign Relations, and ProPublica, as well as American Airlines, PepsiCo, and AOL. He is a former board chair of PBS, the Newseum, and the World Wide Web Foundation.

Ibargüen is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Society and the Council on Foreign Relations. For his work to protect journalists in Latin America, Ibargüen received a Maria Moors Cabot special citation from Columbia University.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wesleyan University and a juris doctor from the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.