Richard L. Corsi

Meet Dr. Richard L. Corsi, New Dean of the College of Engineering

Dr. Richard L. Corsi has returned to his alma mater 32 years after receiving his M.S. and Ph.D. in civil (environmental) engineering as the dean of the UC Davis College of Engineering. He began his appointment on September 15.

“I look forward to inspiring students every year of their education, broadening participation, investing in strategic areas for research and education, growing the extent and impact of the research enterprise, increasing visibility, sustaining a strong community of scholars and caring for one another and enjoying and taking great pride in what we do as a community,” said Corsi. “I know how much the College of Engineering and the institution can change a life for the better. That knowledge drives me to provide such opportunities for others.”

Corsi is a leading expert in the field of indoor air quality. His early-career research focused on toxic chemical emissions from municipal and industrial wastewater. For the past 25 years, his research focus has been related to indoor chemistry and reducing inhalation exposures of building occupants to harmful air pollutants of both outdoor and indoor origin. During the past 18 months, he has been actively engaged in national discussions on layered risk reduction to reduce transmission of COVID-19 by aerosol particles inside buildings.

Dean Corsi in his UC Davis regalia
Dean Corsi in his UC Davis regalia in 1989.
(Photo courtesy of Dean Corsi)

Corsi earned his B.S. from Humboldt State University in environmental resources engineering and both his M.S. and Ph.D. in civil (environmental) engineering from UC Davis. From 1994 to 2018, he was on the faculty of the University of Texas, Austin, serving as chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering from 2013 to 2017. Since 2018, and concurrent with his position as dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State, he has been emeritus chair and professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at UT Austin.

His past experience has greatly prepared him for his role.

“While I was the chair of a very large and highly-ranked department at the University of Texas at Austin and dean of a moderate-sized College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University, I led the development and implementation of bold strategic visions, oversaw significant curriculum reform, worked to improve inclusiveness and strength of community, increased communications regarding accomplishments in our community, built new partnerships and raised funds to support students and critical infrastructure needs.”

Corsi says the UC Davis College of Engineering gave him the skills and confidence that propelled him into a wonderful life that he never dreamed he would have.

“I am a first generation American and a first-generation college student,” said Corsi. “My mother never made it to high school and my father finished his high school degree at the age of 44 by taking night courses, when I was five years old. I was not expected to go to college, nonetheless graduate, get a Ph.D., become a professor and eventually a dean. My parents were deeply supportive of my quest for education. My father passed away two months before I handed in my doctoral dissertation at UC Davis. He loved visiting my wife Gina and I when we were in graduate school. I think of him often and know that he, too, would be thrilled that we have moved back to Davis. It all seems so complete.”

Corsi’s contributions to society, his field and his institutions have been recognized in many awards and honors.

“I do not think that someone should be a dean if they do not love everything about academia, caring deeply for students and enjoying the exploration and discovery of research. I love everything about academia. I love being around bright, aspiring students, innovative faculty colleagues and hard-working staff. I love meeting alumni and hearing how their experiences as a student helped shape their journey in life. I love working with fellow deans to make the entire institution a better place for all,” said Corsi.

Below, we get to know more about dean Corsi and learn about his priorities, goals and vision for the College of Engineering.

What are you looking forward to most in this new role?

I am thrilled to be returning to a university that has such a deep sense of community, that values multi-disciplinary collaboration and success, that has been deeply committed to sustainability from its inception and that understands the extraordinary and positive impacts that it has on students who come from a wide range of life experiences. I am looking forward to all things UC Davis!

What inspires you?

Three things come immediately to mind. I know the pressure that can be placed on first-generation students and am inspired to watch them grow as engineers, succeed, walk across the stage at graduation and then succeed in their careers. This process of growth to success is about as inspiring as it gets. I am inspired by the tireless efforts of academic staff. They are the gears that keep universities running hour-by-hour and day-by-day. They do not typically receive the recognition they deserve, but often work with the deepest of commitment to serve students and faculty. Finally, I am inspired by the field of engineering and all of the possibilities that it brings for improving the human condition and protecting and healing the natural environment. Think of the technologies that engineers will develop and employ in the future to combat climate change and its impacts, stave off pandemics, improve human health, improve mobility and feed the world. I am biased, but engineering is pretty darn inspiring!

What is your vision for the UC Davis College of Engineering?

Students should be drawn to UC Davis to study engineering because they want a great education, but also to be inspired about possibilities for making the world a better place. The college is well-positioned to reimagine what engineering education is and to lead others into the future. We can, and will, grow an exciting innovation ecosystem that follows undergraduates throughout their education and provides a multitude of opportunities for graduate students as well.

Our college is already working in many areas that address issues critical to society and the natural environment. We will focus on increasing cross-departmental and cross-college teams necessary to address complex tipping point issues that face humankind and the planet. There are many examples for which the UC Davis College of Engineering can be acknowledged as a national and international leader–from climate change adaptation and mitigation to advances in technologies that improve human health–we are so well-positioned to leverage our existing expertise, partners across other schools and colleges at UC Davis and external partners and stakeholders. Finally, we should use an equity lens for all that we do, never forgetting that the grand challenges that humankind faces often have the greatest impacts on underserved communities. Engineering education and research opportunities should be available to all and promoted for those historically underrepresented in engineering.

What are some of your top priorities or efforts that you are most excited to start implementing in the College of Engineering?

I must acknowledge that there are already many great initiatives in the college, from broadening participation and student success at the undergraduate level to stoking the college research trajectory. We must sustain and grow these successful initiatives. Much of my first year as dean will involve climbing a steep learning curve, getting to know faculty, staff, student groups, fellow deans, alumni and external partners. At the same time, I intend to begin focused discussions within our community regarding strategic vertical and horizontal research themes that can be used for purposes of investment, concentrated hiring of future faculty and development of new partnerships.

I am eager to see the Diane Bryant Engineering Student Design Center to completion and to sequence activities that fuel excitement, exploration, discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship, and inspire our students. I am also hopeful that we can expand research experiences for undergraduate students and mentoring experiences for graduate students who aspire to careers in academia. Seeding new efforts to grow our already healthy research enterprise is important to me.

Broadening participation at the graduate level is important if we want to eventually see faculty of engineering across the United States reflect the population as a whole. We must and will act to do so by providing more research experiences for those from groups traditionally underrepresented in engineering, adding diversity to our faculty and developing robust external partnerships that lead to a diverse pipeline of graduate applications. Lastly, recognizing, engaging and empowering staff is important to me.

What stands out about UC Davis and the College of Engineering compared to the other universities you have been with?

The institution has deep commitments to community, caring for students, broadening participation, sustainability and impactful research. It has a strong sense of purpose and grounding with respect to serving California. The College of Engineering is no different, pushing so many of the right buttons. That’s what makes it such a pleasure and honor to be a member of this community.

What are you looking forward to about living in Davis again?

I look forward to being a part of a community with a collective commitment to sustainability, from a local to global level, and the innovation and excitement that comes from being in a place driven by a world-class university. I love the youthful energy of Davis that is fueled by UC Davis, the parks and greenbelts and the feel of the downtown business district. It is an extraordinary city.

Dean Corsi, his wife Gina and their cattle dog, Chloe
Dean Corsi, his wife Gina and their cattle dog, Chloe.
(Photo courtesy of Dean Corsi)

What do you like to do in your free time?

My wife Gina and I love dogs and I enjoy teaching them and having them teach us. We were a foster home for a border collie when we were graduate students at UC Davis. I got attached, and he became our first canine child. We have since had two more herding dogs. Our current dog is a brilliant Australian cattle dog who is 17 years old. She is doing her best to teach me how to grow old gracefully. I also enjoy writing songs for acoustic guitar and playing guitar. I love almost all sports and particularly admire student athletes. I was an academic advisor to the men’s basketball team during my first faculty position at the University of Guelph in Canada. It was a fulfilling and fun experience. My sport in my younger years was baseball. I was a pitcher and continued to play until I was 32 years old in a city league in Canada, before my “career” was ended by a torn rotator cuff. I have been happily married to Gina for 38 years. She received her graduate degree in computer science at UC Davis. If it is possible to be beyond thrilled to return to Davis, that’s what we are. It feels like coming home after a 32-year life journey that was propelled by UC Davis. It feels like a perfect circle.

This story was featured in the Fall 2021 issue of Engineering Progress.

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