A new center focused on the changing relationship between law and technology and its effects on society is launching its first initiatives at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln this semester.
The Nebraska Governance and Technology Center, approved by the Board of Regents in February, will give students and faculty opportunities possible at only a handful of universities across the globe. The center will leverage the university’s breadth of expertise and partnerships across multiple disciplines — law, engineering, business and journalism — to allow scholars to investigate questions at the forefront of technology policy.
In August, the center received a significant gift, of $3.5 million over five years, from the Menard family.
In an open letter to the University of Nebraska community, the Menard family said: “A seminal part of the college experience is hearing from people who have a diversity of viewpoints and track record of creating value for others. At Menards, we want to give more students the opportunity to have that experience and to develop a lifelong love of learning as a result.”
The center will take on issues that arise when laws and technology fail to align, according to its founding director, Gus Hurwitz, associate professor of law.
The first endeavor of the center is called “Tech Refactored,” a podcast series focused on the center’s work and the research it will help facilitate. Many of the initial episodes will showcase center-funded work on closing the rural digital divide and technology’s relationship to agriculture. The center is also working on programs this fall that examine highly interconnected economies and the effects of technology on the First Amendment and the media industry.
“The law today has developed over centuries, largely based around slowly evolving technologies that were limited by our understanding of the natural world,” Hurwitz said. “Today’s increasingly programmable technologies can change rapidly and are limited more by human imagination than by the natural world. This changes how we need to think about the law and changes the relationship between the engineers who develop new technologies, the entrepreneurs who commercialize it and the journalists who explain and contextualize it.”
The new center will be housed in the University of Nebraska College of Law, and legal questions will inspire research and other academic programming.
“Lawyers are deeply involved in finding solutions to existing and emerging challenges — including those driven by technological change,” said Richard Moberly, dean of law. “I’m excited that Nebraska will be leading the way with innovative research initiatives across law and other disciplines.”
One of the core ideas behind the center’s mission is that the challenges of technology governance are fundamentally interdisciplinary. The center has established partnerships with the university’s colleges of law, business, engineering, and journalism — sharing faculty and collaborating with students across campuses.
In Hurwitz’s view, it is time to reframe the way emerging technology is studied and encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.
“The impact of new technologies ripples across multiple fields — the traditional, siloed model of study is insufficient to fully grapple with them,” he said.
Preliminary planning for the center started in spring 2020 with a $1.3 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation.
“Innovation and technology have transformed the way humans live and have expanded opportunities for millions of people,” said Ryan Stowers, Koch Foundation executive director. “We are excited to support the University of Nebraska and its scholars and students as they explore the intersection of law and technology and how that relationship impacts the development of new innovations.”
The Menard family has its roots in the Midwest and a longstanding commitment to seeing the region prosper. John Menard founded his namesake home improvement stores while he still was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Today, Menards has 325 stores and 41 manufacturing facilities in 14 Midwestern states. In Nebraska alone, Menards has 14 stores and four manufacturing facilities.
Other gifts and grants have been received from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which gave $250,000; Richard Varner, an alumnus of the University of Nebraska, and his family; and others.