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Ernst, Earth Sciences dean, to return to full-time teaching, research

STANFORD -- After serving five years as dean of Stanford University's School of Earth Sciences, W. Gary Ernst has announced he will return to full-time teaching and research, effective Aug. 31.

Since 1989, when he came to campus from UCLA, Ernst has helped the school weather a number of natural and institutional storms. The Loma Prieta earthquake struck just six weeks after he arrived. In the quake's aftermath came a period of budget repositioning, followed by the ongoing downsizing effort.

"I fully understand Gary's wish to return to teaching and research, and am grateful that Stanford will continue to be the recipient of his talent," said President Gerhard Casper.

"I know from personal experience what a wonderful teacher he is," Casper said. "On a weekend trip, he explained to my wife and me the geology of Point Lobos, and was clear and exciting and obviously in love with his subject."

Casper and Provost Condoleezza Rice plan on conducting a national search for a new dean.

Casper said that recruiting Ernst from UCLA had represented a major coup for Stanford. At UCLA, Ernst had earned a national reputation as a scientist, including serving as president of the Geological Society of America and of the Mineralogical Society of America, and having been elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

"At Stanford, he has been a valuable member of the Cabinet, a dedicated dean and a leader of great imagination in, along with faculty members, creating the new undergraduate major of Earth Systems," Casper said.

'Earthquake dean'

Ernst may go down in history as the school's "earthquake dean" said Franklin M. Orr, chairman of the petroleum engineering department.

"For a geologist, association with an event like that is significant," Orr said.

Loma Prieta, which evicted Ernst from his office in Geology Corner before he had a chance to get settled, displaced a large number of earth scientists, forcing them to crowd into Mitchell Earth Sciences Building or set up temporary offices in trailers on Roble Field. As a result, much of Ernst's early effort as dean was directed at obtaining adequate housing for the school. That effort included shepherding the funding, design and construction of the $24 million Green Earth Sciences Building that was dedicated last fall.

Earth Sciences is the smallest school on campus, with 40 faculty members and an annual budget of $16 million, $13 million of which comes from federal and industrial research funding plus endowments and gifts. The school supports courses and research in geology, including geochemistry, minerology and petrology, paleontology, and tectonics. It also includes applied earth sciences programs such as petroleum engineering, hydrogeology, geologic remote sensing and ore exploration. About one-third of all Stanford undergraduates take at least one earth sciences course. The most recent U.S. News and World Report college survey ranked the school third in the country, the same position it held in a poll conducted five years ago by the American Council on Education.

"I've charted some new directions and gotten the school moving," Ernst said of his tenure as dean. "Now I can best serve the university by returning to teaching and research."

The traditional strengths of the school have been in geology, geophysics and petroleum engineering - the study of rocks and the fluids that they contain. Since his arrival, Ernst has pushed for expansion into new areas, most prominently research and teaching relating to environmental problems. He also has encouraged interdisciplinary collaborations on environmental studies.

Jonathan Roughgarden, professor of biological sciences and geophysics, said he regrets Ernst's decision to step down.

"From my vantage point, he's been sensitive to and effective in bringing the School of Earth Sciences more into the university fold," Roughgarden said. "He's appreciated the need for the school to function in partnership with other schools, particularly in the areas of undergraduate teaching and research. He has also argued strongly for, and had some success at, bringing new kinds of science into the school."

Ernst said that expanding into new areas, specifically those that bear on the formative discipline of environmental science, is vital for the school's future. The end of the Cold War represents a real opportunity, he said.

"The lack of a strategic threat means that the paradigm of high-energy physics will no longer be so dominant," Ernst said. "Earth sciences and biology will have a better opportunity to get up to the table because governments will increasingly be looking for socially relevant science to fund."

Evolution of department

The combination of the applied earth sciences and geology departments into a single department of geological and environmental sciences and adoption of the Earth Systems major illustrate the fact that the school has begun moving in this direction, Ernst said.

"Of course, things like this evolve slowly," Ernst said. "They must bubble up from the faculty. They cannot be imposed from the top."

"Formation of the new department presented us with new challenges," said its chair, David D. Pollard. "With the word 'environment' in our title, we have to be serious about environmental issues. So we have rearranged some positions, and some people have shifted their research into environmental areas."

One place where Pollard sees the school making a major contribution to environmental problem solving is embodied in a new "crustal fluids" initiative that Ernst supported.

"We have a lot of expertise related to the fluids - such as oil, gas and water - that are found in the crust," Pollard said. "We are hoping to bring together people from all three of the school's departments to treat this subject from a systems point of view. This expertise can be applied to problems such as the underground storage of radioactive wastes, groundwater contamination and the environmentally safe production of oil and gas."

Ernst and Roughgarden advocate a further expansion of emphasis into the oceans and atmosphere, the fluid envelopes that sit atop the crust. Such a dramatic departure, however, remains a matter of ongoing debate within the school.

"We have very little expertise in these areas, and in these times of budgetary problems I'm not sure where the money would come from," Pollard said.

One of Ernst's major projects after he steps down as dean will be to finish editing a new textbook, Earth Systems: Processes and Issues, that is designed for the interdisciplinary undergraduate course "Introduction to Earth Systems" that he helped design.

On the research front, Ernst will pursue a number of different projects in his field of expertise, the origins of rocks from deep in the crust. He has ongoing field studies along the California coast, in the White Inyo Range and in the Klamath region. In addition, he will be collaborating on studies in Central China and the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan.



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