Dartmouth Unveils New Institute

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2016 12:09:23 AM
Modified: 9/17/2016 12:09:29 AM

Hanover — An $80 million gift from a major player in the oil industry will be used to fund a new energy research institute at Dartmouth College — a development that environmentalists within the Dartmouth community described as a “horrific” example of influence-peddling, but college officials say will help solve the world’s energy problems.

“I think it’s safe to say that this is the largest investment in a single academic program ever by Dartmouth,” Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon said on Friday afternoon.

The institute will create a unique environment in which a cross-disciplinary approach can come up with solutions to real-world problems, such as concerns about the reliability of electricity grids, according to Tuck School of Business professor Robert Hansen, who headed up the task force that has been laying groundwork for the deal for the past 16 months.

Using the example of power grids, Hansen noted that current research is fragmented, with electronic engineers working on improved smart grid systems that can shuffle loads around more efficiently, economists trying to figure out how they fit into the marketplace, and computer scientists working to protect them from increasingly sophisticated attacks from computer hackers.

“Bringing these people together, and giving them more resources will make them blossom,” Hansen said.

The hiring of staff and the funding of research will begin this year, but eventually, it will be moved to a new, uniquely designed building — The Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society — that will be sited somewhere near the Tuck Mall on the western end of the campus, which is in its early design phase and will open its doors in 2020.

The institute was started with an $80 million lead gift from Irving Oil, the Arthur L. Irving Family Foundation, and members of the Irving family, including Irving Oil Chairman Arthur Irving and his daughter Sarah Irving, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 2010 and the Tuck School of Business in 2014, and currently is the executive vice president of Irving Oil, a privately held, Canada-based energy company.

Hanlon said he had the idea for the institute when he saw the need for an interdisciplinary approach to a complex issue that has the ability to change the world.

As a personal acquaintance of the Irving family, he said, he approached them because he knew of their concern about how to balance the need to supply energy with the need to protect the environment.

“I asked them if they would be open to a proposal to support a major energy institute,” he said. “I asked, ‘What would you think of that?’ They were receptive.”

The institute also has attracted an additional $33 million in funding from a handful of other alumni; college officials hope to raise a total of $160 million to fund the institute.

Hansen said roughly $60 million would be used in startup costs, including the construction of the building, and that an endowment of the remaining $100 million would provide annual revenues of about $5 million.

He said the institute would be able to attract grants and research partnerships that also would contribute to its annual working budget.

Hundreds of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students are expected to enroll in classes and engage in research projects under the institute; Hansen said he envisioned most of the academic staff splitting their time between the institute and their home departments.

The new partnership touched a raw nerve for some who have been urging Dartmouth to move away from its associations with the oil industry.

For example, 2014 Dartmouth alumnus Morgan Curtis, a lead organizer for the group Dartmouth Alumni for Climate Action, said she was horrified when a college staffer told her about the announcement.

“Welcoming their blood money into the college is really sickening for me,” she said, fighting back tears at one point during the conversation.

She said it would be a major step backward for Dartmouth’s board of trustees, which just held its first open discussion about the possibility of divesting oil investments from the college’s portfolio earlier this week.

“In a college with a mission statement of bettering the next generation, to even invest in the oil and gas industry flies in the face of a stable future,” Curtis said. “They put the name of an oil and gas billionaire on a Dartmouth program. It’s really emotional for me.”

Hansen said that he understood how, at first blush, energy research funded by people connected to the oil industry might seem like influence peddling, but he said it was only a “cosmetic” conflict.

Oil companies, Hansen said, are as interested as everyone else in adapting to the sweeping transformation of the energy sector.

“I don’t think that’s the right way to frame this discussion. The future of energy, I’ll guarantee you, is going to involve business, and it’s going to involve large companies. The world of academia needs to bring the outside world in, including energy companies, and understanding what they do,” he said.

Hansen said that a practical view of the institute shouldn’t include holding Irving Oil accountable for its history.

“The past is past,” he said. “We are concerned about the future.”

In a prepared statement released by the college, Arthur Irving said the “world of energy is ever-changing and we all have an important role to play,” while Irving Oil President Ian Whitcomb’s prepared statement said “when industry and academia work together, we all stand to benefit.”

An Irving spokesman declined a request for an interview.

Hansen said that there had been discussions about whether the oil company was seeking to use its affiliation with Dartmouth to improve its own image.

“We’d be idiots if we hadn’t thought about it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s got any basis in what’s happening. If ‘working with’ means that they’re going to listen to us, that’s pretty cool. For Dartmouth to be able to help create the world of the future is interesting.”

He said the donation from the Irvings comes “with no strings attached,” and the source of that funding would not influence the focus of the research, which he said will be driven by the faculty.

“If anybody thinks that you can tell faculty what to do, I’ll sell you a bridge in Brooklyn,” he said.

Because the money is given in one lump sum, and the endowment will fund ongoing operations, Hansen said there is no risk of funding being withdrawn based on research results.

But Curtis argued that the conflict can’t be avoided.

“I would say that to be getting funding from an industry that needs to end, to do your research on that industry, to me there’s no way for that to be unclouded by bias,” Curtis said.

Hanlon said that the funding, like all donations, is subject to contracts ensuring that it will not influence research.

“We have very clear, very strong language in our gift agreements that for any gift we get,” Hanlon said, “we’re guaranteed academic freedom, the ability of our faculty to pursue any line of investigation and to publish whatever they find.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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