“To be competitive, this kind of investment is essential”

Dick Mack ’71 is quick to point out that he’s not retired. He’s a professor emeritus. There’s a big difference.

“I didn’t retire from science,” Mack says. “I stopped teaching classes in 2015, but I’m still fascinated with connections between life and the physical world.”

That lifelong fascination led Mack and his wife Nancy (pictured) to commit to a $1 million gift to Washington State University’s School of Biological Sciences in the fall of 2023—an extraordinary investment supporting startup costs to facilitate hiring two new faculty for the department.


A staggering sum

Mack first came to Pullman in 1967 as a graduate student, studying ecology under Rexford Daubenmire. When Daubenmire retired in 1975, and a position opened, Mack returned to campus, this time on faculty as an assistant professor of botany. At that time, his startup package was $15,000, a modest sum supplemented through grants, that helped cover laboratory setup, research equipment and supplies, and salary for postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.

Today, the average startup cost for a new professor in life sciences at a public university like WSU has ballooned and can range from $500,000 all the way up to $1 million, a staggering sum that colleges everywhere struggle to absorb when recruiting new faculty.

These initial funds are crucial for multiple reasons. Firstly, they enable the establishment of a well-equipped research laboratory with state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, creating an environment conducive to high-quality scientific research. This foundational infrastructure is essential for professors to conduct research projects effectively.

Moreover, competitive faculty recruitment, including postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, relies on the availability of strong startup packages. Robust funding, like that made possible through the Macks’ gift, is essential in attracting talented individuals to join the faculty and fosters a collaborative, innovative research environment.

Likewise, startup funds empower professors to pursue ambitious and innovative research projects. This financial support allows researchers to explore new ideas, methodologies, and technologies that have the potential to make significant contributions to their respective fields. It seeds the initial momentum necessary to establish a solid foundation for ongoing research endeavors that, in turn, often leads to successful publications and enhances competitiveness when applying for external grants from funding agencies.

“A lab is just a room unless it is well-equipped,” says Mack. “If you can provide the equipment, you can hire active new faculty, and these new faculty help ensure the future of higher education.”


Arms race for new talent

“The Macks have done a rare thing,” Todd Butler, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, explains. “In our college, a generation of scientists is in the process of retiring, and as they do, we’re entering into a nationwide arms race for new talent. This gift allows the college to get ahead of that. It allows us to plan strategically, to marry first-rate talent with state-of-the-art facilities in a unique way.”

The Macks’ gift comes at an opportune time for the College of Arts and Sciences. The college is in the early stages of an ambitious modernization of the entire WSU Pullman Science Corridor, where many labs and facilities are decades old and inadequate for modern research needs. Over the next ten years, the college plans to transform the corridor into a vibrant hub of 21st-century innovation, including constructing a new integrated science building to replace Heald Hall, and renovations to Eastlick Hall, Abelson Hall, and the Fulmer Synthesis Building.


A gift and a challenge

The Macks’ generosity did come with a few strings. As part of their donation, they challenged the college and the School of Biological Sciences to provide startup funding for an additional three positions, for a total of five positions over three years.

It was a challenge Butler was eager to accept. “To be competitive, this kind of investment is essential,” Butler says.

Both the Macks and the college envision the five new positions as interdisciplinary, reflecting the reality that contemporary challenges transcend traditional departmental boundaries. In a post-COVID-19 world, where challenging questions like how to empower an aging population to live independently, how to build an equitable energy future, and how to maintain a food supply in times of climate change require a multi-entry point approach, the Macks’ gift is a significant contribution—addressing an immediate need while establishing the groundwork for a dynamic and forward-thinking academic environment.

The search for the first two of the five new hires is currently underway. The college will search for an additional two faculty in fall 2024, with the final search launching in fall 2025.

“My hope is that these five new positions will ultimately allow us to continue doing what makes a university a university—training new students,” Mack says. “That’s always been the core of what I do.”