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Irving Institute: Too Small, Not Unique

Let’s look at the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society from an entrepreneurial perspective. Is this the kind of business that we want Dartmouth to get into? What special advantages do we have in this area? Who would be our competitors? Is an energy center the best use for our money?

To start, we’d have to compete against, um, the Energy Institute at the University of Michigan, which, as you can see below, has 130 faculty members and one mission:

Michigan Energy.jpg

Then there’s the Energy Initiative at MIT with seven senior executives and 72 staffers:

MIT Energy Comp.jpg

Of course, we should not slight the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, which attracts almost as much each year in grants as the entire Irving Institute might one day have in its endowment:

UT Austin Energy Institute.jpg

Not to mention the energy institutes at Penn State, Colorado State, Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Texas Christian University, The City University of New York, Rutgers, University of Washington, Yale, and on and on (and that was just the first two pages of a Google search for “energy institute”).

The Valley News reported on Phil’s presentation of the new institute in which he described the kind of work that might be done in the new $60 million at the end of Tuck Mall:

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.

Great, Phil. Now try to convince us that a dozen other energy institutes don’t already have large teams of experienced researchers working on this and other problems. You’ll need to present a better justification for us jumping into an area where big guys have been fighting hard for decades. Does the College’s new enterprise have any competitive advantage at all? If so, spell it out.

As for fundraising, it’s pretty clear that a project that has been in the works for three years is not setting the Dartmouth donor community on fire. More from the Valley News

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…

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.

So, we have the Irving $80 million lined up, and after all this time, our President, the supposed fundraiser extraordinaire, has scrambled to come up with another $33 million. That leaves $47 million to be gathered from Dartmouth donors who could well be persuaded to contribute to the betterment of undergraduate education — but, obviously, the staffers in Development aren’t going to be pushing hard in that direction, not when Phil’s pet project needs money.

And just who is going to lead research at the new institute? Phil did not stand up the other day and present to us a team of the nation’s top energy scientists who will power (sorry) the new endeavor. There is nobody at Thayer now who can claim to have the special talent to lead the new entity. If there were, Phil would have named a director. (If you are thinking of Professor Lee Lynd, note that after receiving investments and grants totaling $108.3 million, his Mascoma Corporation sold its struggling yeast business to Canada-based Lallemand Inc. at the end of 2014).

There an old saying in the venture capital world: you need five elements for a successful enterprise: the product, the market, the people, the people, the people. We don’t yet have them. In fact, the way a project like this should be created is to identify an extraordinary member of the faculty or group of faculty members and then build an institute around them. Phil has gone about this process back-asswards.

Other than a big grant that gets us half-way to financing this project, and another partial bit of funding, what does Phil have to show for all of this efforts?

Not anything that I would put money into, not if I was hoping for a strong educational return on my investment.

Addendum: And what does the future hold? Can we expect $60 million buildings dotted around Hanover for new Hanlon institutes in microprocessor design, automobile development, battery research, pollution control, and other areas where we have little expertise and no possibility of doing work on the scale of numerous other competitors?

You don’t have to be a venture capitalist like Chairman of the Board of Trustees Bill Helman ‘80 to understand that Phil’s energy project is doomed to mediocrity at best. But then, as we have always said, the Trustees just rubber-stamp the President’s ideas, even when they should have the good sense to see that the inevitable result is failure and waste.

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

The Energy Institute reminds me of the long-gone but once famous and prestigious Dartmouth Eye Institute, which President Hopkins closed down despite its fame because he feared it distracted from the central mission of the College.

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