The University of Washington's new provost has spent much of his life studying geophysics and pondering whether a massive volcanic eruption might have killed the dinosaurs.
As the new provost of the University of Washington, Mark Richards will have his hands on the day-to-day running of the state’s biggest university. But when he’s not thinking of departmental budgets and academic affairs, he’ll have other, bigger questions on his mind, like: What really killed the dinosaurs?
The provost job makes him second in command to President Ana Mari Cauce — she was provost before she became president of the university, in October 2015 — and is like the general manager of a company. Richads replaces Gerald Baldasty, who retired in June.
Before coming to the UW, Richards, 63, was a professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former dean at the Berkeley school. His work as a geophysicist has been good preparation for being an administrator, he said.
“The Earth sciences, perhaps more than most other sciences, often require multiple lines of evidence in order to settle important research questions,” he said. That way of thinking “has a good effect upon decision-making in a complicated academic context such as the UW.”
Richards has traveled the world looking for clues to the dynamics of the earth’s deep interior. His 30-year research partner, University of California Berkeley professor Walter Alvarez, first theorized that dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago when a giant meteor slammed into the Earth.
At roughly the same time, an active volcanic area of India known as the Deccan Traps became dramatically more active. In the last four years, Richards and Alvarez began working on a relatively new idea: That the main phase of the Deccan eruptions was triggered by the meteor impact.
The eruptions could have spewed enough sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the air to cause a massive environmental catastrophe that the dinosaurs, and many other species, couldn’t survive. But the meteor also could have sentenced the dinosaurs to extinction by kicking up a huge amount of dust and other particles, causing a temporary dimming of the sun and global cooling, and generating acid rainfall.
Whatever it was, the event is believed to have wiped out about 75 percent of plant and animal species on earth.
“I think it’s almost inevitably true both factors were at play,” Richards said. “We’re getting closer to the true sequence of what happened.”
As an academic and administrator, Richards is known for leading an initiative at Berkeley to make professors — often chosen for their research chops, not their instructional skills — into better teachers. He also worked on efforts to expand the diversity of students entering STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
Richards, who grew up in a small town in eastern Texas, speaks with a soft Texas drawl. He says he was drawn to the UW because it shares Berkeley’s commitment to public service. Nationally among academics, it’s regarded as an up-and-coming institution and admired for a spirit of innovation, he said, but like most public universities, it’s also struggling with funding.
Like many other states, Washington slashed higher-education spending during the recession, and the money has not returned. In fiscal year 2017, the UW received about $6,897 per student from the state Legislature. That’s about 40 percent less than it received in 2008, according to UW figures.
Richards doesn’t think most people realize how much higher-education funding has been cut in just the last decade. And universities are often “cast as the villains” by the public because one of the few ways they can make up the difference is by raising tuition, he said.
But it’s clear, just by walking around the UW campus and admiring its stately, collegiate Gothic-style buildings, that the public once strongly supported higher education, he said.
“How we’ve lost sight of that at a time when the need for a college education is greater than ever is a bit of a mystery,” he said. Most new construction on the UW campus today is funded by private fundraising and federal research dollars.
The university is on precarious footing not only because of money, Richards said, but also because of earthquakes. As a geophysicist and expert on plate tectonics, he says the area is in danger of a real catastrophe, and that “the basic infrastructure of the campus is not only rundown, but seismically unsafe.” The UW has estimated it has a backlog of more than $1 billion in building repairs.
While he was at UC Berkeley, the university fixed almost all buildings in danger of collapsing during a severe earthquake. He thinks that would be a good investment for the UW, too.
One of the issues he’ll address in the coming months is the decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities, and the rush of kids majoring in fields like computer science and engineering. It’s a trend at universities across the country. It also causes more budget problems because it’s less expensive to teach an English major than a computer-science major — but both pay the same amount in tuition.
“I can tell you as the parent of high school kids, the college counselors are telling kids to get a STEM degree if you want a job — whether they have the inclination, or the talent,” Richards said. As a way to help students who need STEM skills but still want to major in the humanities, the UW plans to ask the state Legislature for money to offer courses in data science that are targeted to non-STEM majors, and to hire faculty who teach and work at the interface of humanities and social sciences.
Richards plans to engage students on the questions he has sought to answer through his own STEM research. On Oct. 30 at 3:30 p.m., he will give a talk titled “What killed the dinosaurs?” that will be streamed live on uwtv.org.