Dartmouth College has announced a new, lavishly-funded institute to study energy issues. Or, as the PR bumpf puts it, the institute’s purpose is “ato advance the understanding and knowledge of a resource that powers modern life and is directly related to society’s standard of living and success.”
Great news, right?
Well, not everybody thinks so. As the Valley News reports, “environmentalists within the Dartmouth community described [the institute] as a ‘horrific’ example of influence-peddling.”
See, the full name of the new body is the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society. That’s “Irving” as in Irving Oil, one of New England’s leading distributors of fossil fuel. The Irving family donated $80 million — roughly half the estimated cost of the thing, including a shiny new building to be erected on campus — in exchange for the naming rights and, some fear, a measure of influence on what exactly is studied.
This is a growing trend on college and university campuses: rich people with axes to grind putting up scads of dough to establish “institutes” devoted to studying questions of their choosing. And churning out “research” that, mirabile dictu, supports conservative and pro-business points of view.
(And the right wing continues to peddle the phony narrative that higher education is infested with liberals and socialists, poisoning the minds of our young. Truth be told, there are a lot of liberals in the humanities; but the real power in academia is in medicine, law, engineering, and science (and athletics), and those disciplines have far more than their share of conservatives.)
We don’t know if the Irving Institute will be another captive organization. But the naming raises concerns, and so does the guy who “headed up the task force that has been laying groundwork for the deal for the past 16 months.”
His name is Robert Hansen. He is not an engineer or scientist or an ecologist; he’s an economist. And, to judge by his infrequent blog posts, a rather conservative one. Just as a for instance, he raised hopes that the Supreme Court would use the King v. Burwell case to throw out a key aspect of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, King v. Burwell was the latest in a series of ever-more-pathetic anti-Obamacare arguments from the right wing. Only the Court’s most conservative justices bought the argument.
Hansen is also, says the Valley News, “a personal acquaintance of the Irving family.” Aww, how touching.
Also, the Institute’s stated purpose includes some notable conservative dog whistles on energy policy. For instance, “concerns about the reliability of electricity grids.” Read: the scattered and unreliable nature of renewable sources.
Dartmouth’s press release lauds its new benefactor as “a visionary leader on the global energy stage.” Gee, here I thought he was just a fuel distributor who’s made a fortune by contributing to climate change. Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon says the institute “will be a testament to Arthur Irving’s highest values and aspirations,” which doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.
But Hansen offers reassurance, sort of. He says we shouldn’t think about Irving Oil’s role in fostering global warming:
“The past is past,” he said. “We are concerned about the future.”
I think that’s what the defense lawyers said at Nuremberg.
One final note of faux reassurance from Ian Whitcomb, president of Irving Oil.
“When industry and academia work together, we all stand to benefit.”
I feel better already.