Wilson named director of Arthur L. Irving Institute

by Sonia Qin | 6/29/17 11:55pm

Elizabeth Wilson has been named the inaugural director of the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society. Wilson, formerly of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, will begin work on September 1 and will join the College as an environmental studies professor. 

At the University of Minesota, Wilson’s research included examining how policies and institutions respond to environmental risks such as climate change by incorporating new technologies into existing energy systems. Wilson has recently studied the creation of smart grids and its opportunities and challenges, as well as decision making within Regional Transmission Organizations, which manage transmission planning, eletricity markets and grid operations in over 70 percent of North America.Wilson was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2015. 

Wilson’s interest in energy came from working on climate change, not only through the problems and impact on the planet, but also the possible solutions. While working at the University of Minnesota, she saw how an interdisciplinary institute can foster new research and opportunities for students, as well as interdisciplinary initiatives. 

She first heard about the job opening from her colleagues and thought it was an exciting opportunity “to build something new from scratch at a great school and at a large scale.”

  While there are many energy programs across the country, there are few as comprehensive as the Irving Institute is aiming to be, she said. She added that many programs only focus on technology or particular technologies, while the Irving Institute will aim to engage people and departments all over campus.

The role as director of the Irving Institute creates an opportunity to think about issues on the horizon of the energy system that are shaping things and to ask the right questions, Wilson said.

The director search process began last fall, said Tuck School of Business professor and director search committee co-chair Robert Hansen.

Hansen, chemistry professor and dean of graduate studies F. Jon Kull ’88 and Provost Carolyn Dever utilized a large search committee including people from many different areas of the College.

Executive director of the Revers Center for Energy and search committee member April Salas  said that the committee was able to discuss bringing the Institute together around not only energy, but society.

Environmental studies professor and search committee member Richard Howarth agreed and emphasized looking at energy challenges from a broad liberal arts perspective, in addition to public policy, engineering and business perspectives. 

Excellence in scholarship was a high priority for the committee, said geography professor Susanne Freidberg, another member of the director search committee.

“We were committed from the start to hiring someone who had spent most of their career in academia as opposed to someone coming from the industry or policy world,” she said. “We were also interested in somebody with good leadership skills, including the skill of talking to people in many different disciplines, and we were interested in somebody who understands the arts and sciences, and not only engineering.”

According to Hansen, other criteria for candidates included a dedication to teaching, a motivation to build the Institute to an expected size and stature, collegiality and an appreciation for interdisciplinary work. What stood out to him the most about Wilson’s application was her appreciation and understanding for the term “energy and society”. 

“She really addressed what we mean by ‘energy and society’ in a way that resonated very well with the committee, mostly looking at the energy topic from a really broad, societal, interdisciplinary perspective,” Hansen said. 

Divest Dartmouth member Alexander Miller ’20 said that Wilson is viewed to be pragmatic by the academy, which may have a positive impact at Dartmouth because the College has pointed to pragmatic and technical issues as inhibitors in advances on energy and renewable energy.

According to Miller, the College may begin to take such issues more seriously since Wilson will be “such a reasonable, logical, and pragmatically-focused director.” If College President Phil Hanlon and the Board of Trustees believe that the Irving Institute is the most effective way to affect energy change at Dartmouth, then Divest will seek partnerships with the Institute in the future, he said.

Miller is intrigued by Wilson’s claim that she would like to see the Institute engage with the artistic community at Dartmouth. 

“The larger conversation surrounding energy, the attitude towards it, has almost become in many ways anti-scientific,” he said. “I think it’s really perceptive of her to look at energy as not just an issue for scientists, but as an issue for concerned artists.”

According to Wilson, her first action as director will be to hire a good team and find students who are passionate about energy issues.

“It is more than just about creating an institute, it will be about creating a culture,” Wilson said.

Salas noted that the College will be initiating the “essence of the Institute” before 2020, which is when the College expects to complete the Institute’s building. 

“I think the excitement is that we’re not waiting until 2020 to get going on establishing the institute and the process of convening and identifying what the core pillars will be for the Institute,” she said. “I would anticipate a different range of academic and co-curricular activities happening well in advance of 2020.”

Noah Goldstein contributed reporting.