Dartmouth’s new Wright Center will study intersections of technology, democratic values

  • Dartmouth College is creating a $15.5 million academic center honoring former President Jim Wright and his wife Susan DeBevoise Wright that will focus on the use of computers to better understand and advance democratic societies and the rule of law. (Ryan Bent photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/16/2020 8:51:53 PM
Modified: 11/16/2020 8:51:49 PM

HANOVER — Dartmouth College is creating a $15.5 million academic center honoring former President James Wright and his wife, Susan DeBevoise Wright, that will focus on the use of computers to better understand and advance democratic societies and the rule of law.

The Susan and James Wright Center for the Study of Computation and Just Communities will use computer simulations, complex statistical analysis and artificial intelligence, among other technology, to research free speech and digital misinformation, surveillance and safety, and other issues related to democratic values and human rights, according to an announcement about the center on Dartmouth’s website.

It is being funded by a gift from Seattle residents Sally and William H. Neukom. He is a 1964 Dartmouth graduate and former general counsel for Microsoft who chaired the Dartmouth Board of Trustees during part of Wright’s tenure and also served as president of the American Bar Association.

Wright, a professor of American history who served as Dartmouth president from 1998 to 2009, noted on Monday that he had learned Fortran, an early computer language, decades ago to analyze voting patterns in his doctoral dissertation on the American Populist Movement.

He said that the “earliest prophets and philosophers and thinkers,” as well as the nation’s founders, all wrestled with the idea of what comprises a just society.

“We understand that a just society is one that is inclusive, that is equitable and is one that really makes opportunities available for everyone, and that computing can be a force for good in monitoring this and guiding this,” Wright said.

The 81-year-old Wright, who has been at Dartmouth for 51 years and now writes and conducts research at a college-owned office in downtown Hanover, said he was also pleased that the center recognizes the contributions of his wife.

Susan Wright worked for Dartmouth for more than 30 years, including directing the Montgomery Fellows Program, running the graduate advising program and serving as an assistant dean.

The Wright Center will be part of the William H. Neukom Institute for Computational Science, which was launched in 2004, and will be based in the Haldeman Center on campus.

The $15.5 million for the center will include an endowed professorship in the social sciences in the Wrights’ name, another in computer science named for former Dartmouth President John Kemeny, and funding for four postdoctoral fellowships.

The Dartmouth announcement noted that more than 70% of Dartmouth students take at least one computer science or engineering course and that the number of computer science majors has more than quadrupled over the last 10 years.

Valley News staff writer John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.




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