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Distinguished professor

Economics professor Russell Williams honored with Robert C. and Mary Priedeman Brown ’43 Chair

As the first recipient of the Robert C. and Mary Priedeman Brown ’43 Chair in Urban Planning and Environment, Associate Professor Russell Williams will explore how economic development affects the environment and the relationship between urban and rural communities.

The college's newest endowed chair was established by Mary "Molly" Priedeman Brown ’43, who studied art and psychology at Wheaton. Brown, who lived to the age of 89, was described in her obituary as the “robust, colorful type of character western legends are made of.” In her lifetime, she flew airplanes, co-founded an aircraft company, carved gunstocks, won skeet-shooting contests, rode horseback, worked on a ranch in Montana and “rolled her own cigarettes with one hand," according to the memorial.

“As I begin my term, I am very aware of the character of the Wheaton alumna who saw fit to endow this chair,” Williams said. “She did things that were unusual for women at that time, pursuing her goals with drive, innovativeness and persistence; overcoming strictures of gender discrimination and social convention."

The Brown chair is one of 11 endowed professorships awarded on a rotating basis at Wheaton. Faculty may submit an application for one of the positions describing their qualifications and outlining how it would support their work; a selection committee then reviews these materials and awards the honor to the top candidate.

Not only does an endowed professorship recognize accomplished, innovative faculty members, it also provides them with more time to pursue research and other projects. Endowed professors are relieved of teaching one course in each of the five years and receive one semester-long sabbatical during their term.

For Williams, professor and chair of the Economics Department, that gift of time will be used to take a closer look at how farms in Vermont are using food waste to produce electricity and to study the effects a massive new shipping facility will have on a rural community in Georgia. The two projects, though separate initiatives, both relate back to Williams’ longstanding interest in the relationship between urban and rural areas.

It was an interest sparked by three men in Williams’ family—his father, a college teacher who held a Ph.D. in agriculture; his paternal grandfather, who operated a 75-acre farm on which Williams worked for three summer; and his maternal grandfather, who assisted black families living in rural Georgia as the state Agricultural Extension Agent. Though Williams spent most of his adult life in urban areas and co-authored a book on urban economics, he has long been interested in the interdependence of rural and urban areas. The particular projects he will study also build upon his interests in the economic impact of technological changes, and, more generally, in the connection between economics and science.

For the first project identified in his Brown chair application, Williams plans to follow up on work he did in 2011 for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development examining the economic impact of renewable energy projects in seven states. One of the renewable energy projects involved anaerobic digestion, a process in which microorganisms break down organic matter and convert that energy into electricity that can help run a farm. Though farms previously have relied on manure to feed this system, requiring a large number of cattle to make it efficient, some farms have begun importing food waste from manufacturers to make electricity.

Williams hopes to return to Vermont to assess how anaerobic digestion is working for farmers, determine whether the use of that energy is growing and identify what it takes to make the use of food waste economically feasible for all involved.

“I see this as an interesting potential connection between urban areas and farms,” Williams said. “Instead of sending waste out to be placed in a dump somewhere, they’re using it to actually produce more power and to help build another important bond between the places in which our food is produced, and the cities and towns where most of that food is consumed.

The second project relates to current efforts to expand the Panama Canal to allow huge ships from Asia to deliver goods to the eastern U.S. coast. Work is expected to finish in 2015, and in response many ports along the southeastern coast, including Jacksonville, Fla., Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga., are expanding their harbors to accommodate these new larger ships.

With these vessels arriving in the near future, cities are also looking for places to store the thousands of shipping containers they transport. The state of Georgia is building a staging facility about 186 miles west of Savannah, in rural Crisp County—a big change for residents in that area and for the host town Cordele, which has a population of about 12,000.

“The question that I raise is what does this mean for Cordele and Crisp County?” Williams said. “Cordele is largely a farming community; they like to call themselves the ‘Watermelon Capital of the World.’ We’re talking about a major change to their economic base.”

Williams plans to investigate this major development and answer such questions as who benefits from the project, what types of jobs are created and whether there are any long-term environmental effects. Ultimately, he hopes to identify best practices for development and lessons to be learned from this project, and how they may be of use to urban and rural planning for other inland ports that are built in the future.

“Having the Brown chair adds an additional level of gravitas to my research efforts. It helps build my credibility as I go to Georgia and to Vermont,” Williams said. “Having the college recognize me as a distinguished professor with expertise in this field is a statement to everyone I may encounter and will make my research that much easier.”