Monday, February 6, 2023 Feb 6, 2023
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For UT’s new chancellor, the sky’s not the limit
By Chris Tucker |

Dr. Hans Mark was born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1929. The son of Herman Mark, a distinguished chemist, Mark spent much of his childhood in Austria until the Nazi invasion forced the family to emigrate to America. After earning a degree in physics from Berkeley in 1951 and a Ph. D from MIT in 1954, Mark worked as a research physicist at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, University of California, and taught at Berkeley and other universities. In 1969, he became director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, where he oversaw development of the tilt-rotor aircraft and the Pioneer 10 space probe. From 1977 to 1980, he served in the Carter administration, first as undersecretary and later as secretary of the Air Force. That career came to an end with the election of Ronald Reagan, but Mark stayed in Washington as deputy administrator of NASA until 1984, when he was chosen to be the sixth chancellor of the University of Texas. In addition to writing more than 100 scholarly articles, Mark is co-author (with Edward Teller) of Power and Security, a title which neatly summarizes his major concerns as scientist and administrator: Mark is a lifelong advocate of a strong national defense and takes a dim view of arms control treaties with the Soviets. His latest book. The Space Station: A Personal Journey, will be published this year. Mark confesses that he doesn’t yet have a detailed agenda for his new job; he has spent most of his time touring the vast UT system with its 119,000 students, 50,000faculty and staff and an operational budget of $1.8 billion. Mark is energetic, imaginative and unafraid of controversy. If his future is half as interesting as his past, the UT system may never be the same.

D: Considering the state’s budget problems, and the hiring freeze recently placed on the UT campus, could you have picked a better time to come in?

Mark: Probably, but they picked me; I didn’t pick them. I had been in Washington eight years, which for me is sort of a half-life. I started looking because when we succeeded in getting the president to support the space station program, that was like the end of a chapter in my life. I could have stuck around another 10 years until we deploy it, but I’ve been through that once with the space shuttle, and it wasn’t clear to me that this was the best way to spend the next 10 years. I just thought it was time to go.

D: When you came in as secretary of the Air Force, you outlined several clear goals. Do you have a clear outline for UT?

Mark: It’s too early. When I became secretary, I had been undersecretary of the Air Force for two years and an adviser to the Air Force for 20 years. It’s very different here. I’ve spent a lot of time in Texas, but I’ve never been a citizen. For me to make that kind of speech now is impossible. I need to do a lot more learning. If I haven’t made that kind of speech in six months, I’m failing in my job.

D: How would you characterize your own scientific work?

Mark: I like to think I’ve done three things that are interesting. When I was a graduate student, one of the guys in the group I was in stumbled on what turned out to be an important process in unraveling the structure of the nucleus. That illustrated for me how the world works. In experimental science, you often don’t plan for what you find, but if you keep your eyes open, you sometimes find things that are interesting and important. He stumbled on the process, and the rest of us picked it up and did considerable work on it. The next thing was really in connection with the nuclear weapons business at the Livermore Lab in California. In the mid-Fifties, we began to think about what nuclear explosions would do if you set them off above the atmosphere. We did some experiments on that in 1958, launching two small nuclear devices from a ship in the South Atlantic. I was in charge of designing some of the detection devices that measured the radiation that those things put out. In the process, we built devices that were also good at looking at radiation from stars, so again we stumbled into what is now called X-ray astronomy. We were the first to learn certain things about the distribution of radiation from stars and their time variations. The last is the application of large computers to the study of atomic structure. Those are the things I like to think are important.

D: It’s interesting you talk about stumbling onto discoveries. People think that science is such an orderly, methodical process.

Mark: For some people it is. For me it’s more.. .luck. Serendipity.

D: You helped to develop Pioneer 10. That must have been an incredible thrill.

Mark: It was the first spacecraft to leave the solar system, the first exploratory probe out of our immediate neighborhood. It was also the first spacecraft to fly by Mars, the first to fly through the asteroid belt, the first to fly by Saturn and Jupiter and take good pictures. Now it’s 3 billion miles past the orbit of Pluto. The prototype of Pioneer 10 is hanging in the Smithsonian along with the Spirit of St. Louis and the Wright flyer. It was a genuine first.

D: What do you think you accomplished while with the Air Force?

Mark: I knew we had to do three things. We had to modernize our strategic deterrents, and that meant building the MX missile and building a new bomber. We had to get the Air Force into space, because space operations will be enormously important for our strategic defense. And we had to enhance our ability to airlift around the world. Looking back, we did very well. The B-l is now being built, stealth bombers are being built, and we still have an MX on the books, though I don’t know if that’s going to go. In the business of space, what’s happened? The president made his “Star Wars” speech; and the military space budgets have been greatly expanded. As for the airlift, we bought 50 more C-5 airplanes, and we’re going to build the C-17.1 look back and I’m quite satisfied.

D: You were way out in front on the space defense program, which became an issue in the 1984 election. Do you think the public understands the “Star Wars” program?

Mark: Oh, yes. I think there’s a fundamental understanding that the progress of technology will make some kind of strategic defense system possible. People on the street tend to understand that a hell of a lot better than some sectors of the political establishment. They also understand that this technology is going to be developed whether we have a conscious “Star Wars” defense program or not, just like people are going to make smaller watches to make money. The technology that goes into these watches is the same technology that goes into the sensing devices of the computers in the “Star Wars” systems. It’s a direction in technology that makes these devices possible, and I think people understand that.

D: It seems ironic that you were there in the Carter administration pushing for the defense build-up, but in the last political season. Carter and Mondale became synonymous with weakness and giving away the store to the Communists. Is that the way you see those years?

Mark: No. Harold Brown [Carter’s secretary of defense] eloquently and consistently pushed for defense-spending increases, and the turnaround in American defense spending occurred in the Carter administration. It had been declining since 1967. I was very comfortable with Harold’s push, but I was not terribly comfortable with the rhetoric of the Carter administration. The rhetoric, for the first three years at least, was that a strong defense was not as necessary as some of us thought. Carter had more faith than I have in arms control agreements with the Russians. I think our pursuit of SALT II was too obvious. SALT II was not a bad treaty, but the way it was managed politically created the impression that we were too anxious to have an agreement. This created an impression of weakness, which wasn’t really there. Then, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the whole thing turned to dust.

D: Looking back, how would you evaluate Carter as a president?

Mark: He was a good manager and much more on top of the details than Reagan, but I don’t think he ever understood that the essence of leadership is the creation of atmosphere. What really estranged me was his speech in 1979, when he told the American people that they were sick.

D: The “malaise” speech?

Mark: Yes. It is totally impossible to lead people when you tell them they’re sick. By saying that, he gave away his leadership position. At that point, I decided there was no way he would be re-elected. Carter was a decent, intelligent guy, but he never wrapped the country around himself the way Mr. Reagan has done. In his person, he did not represent the nation; he was not a head of state. I don’t mean that you don’t level with people and tell them what’s wrong. Reagan hasn’t hesitated to talk about things that are wrong. But you do it in a way that gives people the confidence they can solve their problems.

D: You don’t object to being called a hardliner when it comes to the Soviet Union?

Mark: Not at all. I’ve been a hard-liner for 35 years, and I’m proud of it.

D: You don’t have that liberal faith that the Russians can be brought to the bargaining table, so we can reason together?

Mark: It’s not a liberal faith. That view of the Russians is not confined to liberals. In this country, we generally believe that people around the world tend to behave like we do, and that’s just flat-out wrong. As an immigrant, I know that better than most. And it’s not just the Russians who don’t behave like we do; it’s the Indians and the Chinese and everyone else. The fundamental problem in our negotiations with the Russians is that we come in assuming that they have the same things in mind we do in reaching these arms-control agreements. They don’t. Our negotiators know that, but if you read the press and look at public opinion, the assumption is that we both have a common interest in arms control. I don’t think that’s true.

D: What is the Russian interest in arms control?

Mark: The common interest we have with them is not in arms control, it’s in preventing a nuclear war. But the theory that arms control is important in preventing nuclear war is, I think, wrong. The Russians have a different way of preventing war, and that’s by arming to the teeth, which is what they’ve done. To me, the proposition that reducing nuclear arms would lessen the probability of a nuclear war is not at all clear. In fact, if there were no nuclear weapons at all, we’d have been at war with them long ago. It’s precisely because we’re terribly afraid of each other that we haven’t had a war. Arms control is one of many elements in an overall strategy; it is by no means the most important.

D: You once wrote “we are the first nation to understand human freedom and how it is preserved.” Is that what you mean by saying we have little in common with the Russians?

Mark: Yes. Let’s face it, the Russians are not like us. For over 1,500 years, they have lived on a large, hostile, indefensible plain. They live in a grim climate. The latitude of Moscow is the same as that of Anchorage, Alaska. The southernmost point in the Soviet Union is on the same latitude as San Francisco. They don’t have natural barriers to defend them from Mongol hordes on one side and Teutonic knights on the other. They’ve never been free to develop as we have. And you ask me to believe that people with a 1,000-year tradition of living that life think the same way we do? No way.

D: In a recent statement, you objected to the university divesting itself from companies that do business in South Africa. Why?

Mark: The notion that we can influence things in South Africa by pulling out investments is arrogant beyond belief. It’s a human tragedy there, and our influence is very minor. If we want to influence the situation there, it would take massive military intervention, and that’s something nobody wants.

D: But what about the idea of a large university like this one setting a moral example, whether it has great financial impact or not?

Mark: That argument has merit, as I said in my statement. And then the argument you have to make is this: Given the financial circumstances of the state, given the problems we have educating the taxpayers’ children, would I give up $30 million a year in order to gain that normal position? My answer is no. Now, the political structure might decide we should do this. If so, well and good. But I don’t see why the university is enjoined to be out front on something like this.

D: In many of your speeches, you talk like a visionary. Yet you’ve worked in government bureaucracies, which many regard as the burial place of the imagination. Why?

Mark: I think government service is an honorable profession. If you look at our history, we’ve had incredibly imaginative initiatives come out of the government. In 1803 Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million he didn’t have. He had to borrow the money. He didn’t know what was in that package, but his dream was that the United States would be a continental nation. In my own business, look at President Kennedy in 1961. He said we should go to the moon. He did that, by the way, against the advice of all his senior advisers. Reagan adopted the space station program against the advice of his advisers. It’s the essence of political leadership to provide such visions.

D: Are you unhappy the nuclear freeze movement seems to be gaining strength?

Mark: The nuclear freeze movement reflects a strain in people’s thinking. It’s the “stop the world, I want to get off” syndrome. It’s the unwillingness to think about anything dangerous or difficult. Let’s just freeze it or somehow get it out of mind. The very word, “freeze” indicates that psychology.

D: You seem bothered by the idea of limits that became popular in the Seventies, the idea pushed by environmentalists and others that we need to circle the wagoas and make do with less. Why does such thinking disturb you?

Mark: If we take seriously the notion that there are limits beyond which we will never go, then the only possible form of government is tyranny. If the pie of resources is limited and can never grow, then there must be an absolute tyranny to divide that pie. We’re not going to agree by an elective process on who gets what. Historically, it’s the fact that we’ve always been able to bake new pies that makes human freedom possible. It doesn’t guarantee freedom, but it makes it possible. This notion of limits is terribly dangerous. The next step is for some politician to decide that he’s the right guy to decide how the pie will be divided. At every given point in history there have been limits, but it’s equally true that these limits have always been exceeded. My father is coming up on his 90th birthday. Here’s a guy who was 8 when the Wright brothers flew their first plane. He’s working today on rocket nozzles that will establish mankind’s permanent presence in space. And you expect me to believe in an era of limits? Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law of Prophecy says the only way to discover the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them.

D: Given that dislike of limits, you can’t be happy with all the talk of cutting university budgets.

Mark: I think we can become, in the next 10 years, the best public higher-education system in the country. I think we’re in the top 10 now, but we have the resources and the political will to be better. And that has enormous consequences for the economy of the state and the way we feel about ourselves. As Mark White said in a speech, “Educated minds are the oil and gas of the future.”

D: But the oil and gas of the present are not providing the revenues they once did…

Mark: It’s a great challenge. We have to persuade people that higher education-quality higher education-is the key to economic development. Why do you think the Japanese are where they are? They have no natural resources, and they can barely support themselves through agriculture. They’re where they are because they have a first-class education system. In 1969, we made two attempts to get to the moon. Both worked. That same year, the Russians tried to fire three of their large lunar rockets, and they all failed. The Russians graduate four times as many engineers as we do, but their standards are not as high as ours. It goes back to quality.

D: Are large tuition hikes inevitable?

Mark: Inevitable. Tuition in a public institution is there to send a message that what people are getting is valuable. Right now we’re not sending that message. Texas is the lowest state in the union in tuition charges.

D: You’re not afraid to speak your mind, though you’re in a politically sensitive position. Can a university chancellor afford to think about the unthinkable?

Mark: Nothing is unthinkable.