G&G, hit by retirees, Lasaga, rebuilds on 5 new hires, with possibly more to come

After a tumultuous period, Yale’s geology and geophysics department is looking to re-establish itself with five new hires.

Joining the faculty this year as junior professors are Steven Sherwood, previously of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and Peter Reiners of the University of Washington. David Evans, a professor at the University of Western Australia and a Yale alumnus, has also accepted a junior position and will join the faculty in January 2002. David Bercovici, former chair of the geology and geophysics department at the University of Hawaii, and Shun-Ichiro Karato of the University of Minnesota both accepted senior positions at Yale in January.

Over a span of four years, a series of retirements and departures, as well as the death of eminent scholar and senior professor Barry Saltzman, left a formerly well-established and esteemed program considerably shaken and prompted the department to launch a massive hiring initiative.

“When a department loses a quarter of its strength in a couple of years, it can’t help but have a very dulling and depressing effect on the enthusiasm level,” geology professor Leo Hickey said. “Also, the amount of scholarship suffers. We were reaching something of a low point.”

The department suffered perhaps the hardest blow of all with the forced departure of Antonio Lasaga, a geochemistry expert and tenured professor. Lasaga, the former master of Saybrook College, was arrested two years ago on child pornography and sexual assault charges. The University revoked his tenure and officially fired him in April.

While the Lasaga scandal became a widespread University issue, his absence in the geology and geophysics department was not debated much once it was clear that he was not coming back.

“It’s not that we had to hire six people to replace Lasaga, but it was more like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” geology professor Jeffrey Park said. “He was a mid-career scientist at the top of his game, and so when he left, it exposed our demographics problem.”

Whereas comparable departments at other universities such as Harvard and the University of Chicago have 25 or more faculty members, Yale’s had been whittled down to 14 professors, half of whom were beyond the typical retirement age.

Director of Undergraduate Studies Brian Skinner said that with strong backing from the administration, the department devoted much of the 1999-2000 school year extending offers and interviewing candidates.

Reiners, an assistant professor, said his decision to leave Washington State University, where he had just started a tenure-track position, was a tough one but worthwhile.

“[Yale] is definitely a more high-powered place than [where] I was before,” Reiners said. “Also, it’s almost surprising the amount of attention and energy here that is put into teaching, as opposed to just research or advising.”

The department is currently in negotiations with at least three more potential hires.

“We’re very enthusiastic,” Hickey said. “It’s a good time and we’re putting this thing back together again.”

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