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
Now that power struggle is lore, a scrap of history in the career
of an untraditional academic leader. And she got the lab keys
Today, Denton takes over as chancellor of the University of
``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
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
``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
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
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
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
``I saw differences in treatment; there was sexism all over the
place,'' Denton said.
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
``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
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
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.''