Alum Profile: Howard Learner


By Jacquelyn Turkovich
Mar 18, 2014 Bookmark and Share

Howard A. Learner (BA 1976, Honors Political Science) is the President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) in Chicago.  With eight offices around the region, the ELPC is the Midwest’s leading public interest environmental legal advocacy and eco-business innovation organization, and among the nation’s leading groups.  The Center’s website says that “Learner is responsible for the overall strategic leadership, policy direction and financial platform for ELPC’s successful work promoting clean energy development solutions to global warming problems, improving the Midwest’s environmental quality, and preserving the region’s natural resources and heritage” (http://elpc.org/learner).   Learner was also the founding Chair of the Illinois Citizens Utility Board, a group representing consumers advocating for fair rates and better services in utility cases.  The Chicago Energy Commission, for which Learner served as Legal Counsel, assessed energy and expenditures for the City of Chicago. Current UM students may recognize him as Professor Learner, as he gives guest lectures at the UM Biological Station on occasion, and teaches an advanced seminar on energy law and climate change policy at the UM Law School every fall.  Learner is an Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University Law School, as well.

“Over time, I developed an interest in clean energy.  Clean air and clean water cases became more and more consumer issues.  I like hiking, biking, backpacking, mountaineering -- and I thought I could take the outdoors and integrate it into work.  At the time, there was no environmental center in Chicago.” Learner the ELPC founded in 1993, after he had spent 13 years as General Counsel for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI). At BPI, he handled complex civil litigation, including housing civil rights issues and a number of cases involving large utilities.  Eventually, he began to work with consumers and the environment. Working with a number of people, Learner led the ELPC from a ground-floor startup to its success today.  With a multi-disciplinary staff of more than 40 people, the ELPC prides itself on its “strong track record of successes on national and regional clean energy development and pollution reduction, transportation and land use reform, and natural resources protection issues” (https://elpc.org/about).

Learner is as enthusiastic about his time as a student at Michigan as he is about his environmental policy work.  “I am blessed to have received a provocative liberal arts education.  I learned how to think critically, construct sensible and smart arguments, write persuasively, and analyze data and shape new ideas,” reflected Learner.  As a freshman, Learner took the time-honored Great Books course and remembers thinking, “Why do we need to read Greek and Romans?  But after about 20 minutes of The Odyssey, Professor [Ralph] Williams had me in the palm of his very large hands.  [Professor Williams] made it engaging -- in other lectures he would ask, ‘How did Plato think about things? What was Plato saying? And how does it relate to today?’”  While Learner took some of the traditional first-year courses, he also had a unique opportunity to take a graduate seminar on the plays of Arthur Miller taught by Arthur Miller, who was visiting campus that fall. “That made for a remarkable first semester!  At home for Thanksgiving with my high school friends, I told them about this great guy teaching Great Books and taking Plays by Miller with Miller and they were like ‘What?!’”  This set the tone for Learner’s continued exceptional experiences at UM.

Early in his undergraduate career, Learner knew that he wanted to go to law school and become a public interest attorney.  He was a student representative on the Board of Directors for PIRGIM (Public Interest Research Group in Michigan) as an undergraduate, majored in Political Science, and wrote his Honors Thesis on the entrepreneurial activity and policy advocacy leading to the creation of the new Public Interest Groups in about 20 states, including Michigan.  He remembers Professor Otto Graf as the Director of Honors, and he had the opportunity to study International Politics with Professor Ken Organski.  Learner graduated in three years and went on to attend Harvard Law School, but he still cites his time at UM as pivotal in his career.  “The Honors Program was a great springboard.  I’m the lucky recipient of a terrific LS&A education that helped jump-start a profession.”  

Learner will be our guest speaker at “Lunch with Honors” on March 28, 2014.  He’ll be speaking about how “Sustainability Works!”  Given the number of sustainability efforts on campus, we’re sure that many students will engage eagerly with this subject and enjoy getting to know Howard Learner a bit, too.