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Posted on Mon, Feb. 14, 2005
 
  R E L A T E D   C O N T E N T 
Denice Denton, the new chancellor of UC-Santa Cruz, faces the challenge of bridging the gap between the "old" UC-Santa Cruz of feminist studies and social justice, and the "new" Santa Cruz of astrophysics, bio-molecular engineering and non-technology.
Karen T. Borchers / Mercury News
Denice Denton, the new chancellor of UC-Santa Cruz, faces the challenge of bridging the gap between the "old" UC-Santa Cruz of feminist studies and social justice, and the "new" Santa Cruz of astrophysics, bio-molecular engineering and non-technology.

New UCSC chancellor no stranger to challenges


UNITING SCHOOL'S SOCIAL JUSTICE, HIGH-TECH ROLES AMONG HER TASKS



Mercury News

When the prominent professor who had recruited her locked her out of the research lab, there was no question what Denice Denton would do. Fight back.

But the odds were against her. He was entrenched in the electrical and computer engineering department. She was a junior faculty member, without tenure and one of two women among 180 men in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Now that power struggle is lore, a scrap of history in the career of an untraditional academic leader. And she got the lab keys back.

Today, Denton takes over as chancellor of the University of California-Santa Cruz.

``She's going to set Silicon Valley upside-down,'' said UC President Robert Dynes, who wants Denton to make the University of California a power player in Silcon Valley.

One of Denton's challenges leading the campus will be to bridge the gap between the ``old'' UC-Santa Cruz of feminist studies and social justice, and the ``new'' Santa Cruz of astrophysics, bio-molecular engineering and nanotechnology.

Denton's life straddles that same divide. As an electrical engineer, she understands the importance of innovation and technology. As an educator, she has devoted herself to inclusion and equity.

Those who know Denton describe her as direct and demanding, creative and decisive, not one to shrink from a challenge.

Her leadership in science and engineering education has influenced the National Science Foundation's agenda. She has led the way to bringing more women and minorities into engineering. She has worked to change university culture in ways that benefit women and men alike.

``I have to hold out the possibility that she is a lot smarter than most people,'' said John D. Wiley, a former engineering colleague, now chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Denton was a rising star. ``She's driven and goal-oriented and extremely perceptive. And she's always been a bit ahead of the curve.''

Youngest UC chancellor

At 45, Denton is the youngest among the 10 chancellors heading UC campuses. She also is a lesbian and brings with her a partner, Gretchen Kalonji, whose new $192,000-a-year job developing international strategy for the UC system has sparked protests from UC's clerical and service workers.

They worked together at the University of Washington in Seattle, where Denton was the first woman to head an engineering college at a major American research university. Kalonji, who was a member of the engineering faculty, ran an international education program.

Not everyone at the college of engineering knew they were a couple, but in announcing her appointment to Santa Cruz, Denton and Kalonji wanted the relationship treated the same as other recent chancellor appointments, with an acknowledgment of the partner.

``We felt it was important to be honest about our relationship from the beginning, to say: `This is who we are,' '' Denton said.

Denton also made headlines recently by speaking out to Larry Summers, Harvard University's president, who suggested women had achieved less in science because of innate gender differences.

``Of course he has the right to say anything and of course there are biological differences,'' Denton said. ``What some of us were concerned about is that his hypotheses were not grounded in the best and latest scholarly work, and could be refuted by anyone in the field.''

That instinct to stand up to what she thinks is wrong is among the reasons Denton has advanced in her career.

Born in El Campo, Texas, Denton found inspiration in her mother, a math teacher who raised her alone.

Even in high school, she chafed when less competent boys were promoted over girls at the Handy Andy grocery store where she was a cashier.

``I saw differences in treatment; there was sexism all over the place,'' Denton said.

Finding engineering

A turning point came in high school, when a trigonometry teacher urged her to apply for a summer engineering camp at Rice University. That led her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned three electrical engineering degrees.

Always interested in practical applications of theory, she spent two summers and an academic year in the late 1970s and early '80s working for Fairchild Semiconductor. Her projects included 64K static RAM design.

``I'm a techie nerd at heart,'' Denton said. ``I have a Treo 600, a Mac 17-inch PowerBook, iPod PicturePod and Bose noise-canceling headset. I live what Silicon Valley does. I used to design it.''

After graduation, she was hired by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was interested in her work in plasma deposition and polymerization.

Things went well initially. But she and a professor clashed when she wanted to do her own research, not just help him. That's when he changed the locks on the lab.

``He was a classic schoolyard bully,'' Denton said.

Denton built a network of women on campus who were going through similar experiences, said professor Vicki Bier, who came up through the ranks with Denton.

The women met regularly, sharing meals, strategizing solutions to problems and advocating to help women advance. ``From the early days, she was looking at how to empower people to improve their situation,'' Bier said.

Denton also cultivated a network of administrators and senior faculty members she knew and trusted, learning to work the system behind the scenes to help other women. ``You almost got a sense she was running a shadow administration,'' Bier said.

Denton thrived at Madison. She was the first woman to win tenure in engineering, and she was quickly promoted to full professor. She launched a mentoring program for faculty women in engineering that was so successful, it was expanded to include everyone. And she won just about every teaching award around.

Denton's work in engineering education attracted national attention.

``Denice was a research star,'' said James Bucklew, an engineering professor. ``She was bringing in lots of money, interacting with lots of prestigious research groups around the world.''

As intense as she could be, Denton also led a balanced life. On summer days in Madison, she would round up friends and head for the lake to drink beer and watch the sunset.

`We were on a roll'

Denton's hiring as dean at the University of Washington's College of Engineering in 1996 was an unconventional choice -- she was female, only 37 and had relatively little administrative experience.

But then-President Richard McCormick, now president at Rutgers University, saw in her an original and fearless leader who could shake up a stodgy, stagnant school. Denton immediately enlisted the faculty in creating a plan to reinvigorate the college and focus more on students.

``From the day she walked in the door, the focus has been on creating an environment so people can succeed -- students, staff and faculty,'' said Mary Lidstrom, who became her associate dean.

Denton also took quick steps to reorganize the college, prompting some faculty to dub her Hurricane Denice. In her first year, she replaced eight of the department's 10 chairmen.

``Working for Denice, we always felt we were on a roll, accomplishing something, achieving success,'' said Ed Lazowska, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Washington for 27 years. ``She knows what the right things to do are, and she has the backbone to do them.''


Contact Becky Bartindale at bbartindale@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5459.

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