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Denice Denton: A Personal Remembrance

by Meg Urry

January 2007

Denice Dee Denton (August 27, 1959 –June 24, 2006) was the ninth Chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). She held the position from February 14, 2005 until her suicide 16 months later. She was a pioneer in the support of women and science in engineering, and was an inspiration to many of our readers. Meg Urry gives her personal rememberance of Denice Denton, followed by a transcript of her presentation to the Women In Astronomy II conference in June 2003.

Denice Denton and I met for lunch in a noisy eatery in downtown Seattle. It was January 2003 and the
American Astronomical Society was holding its winter meeting in the Convention Center there.
On behalf of the CSWA, I had invited Denice to speak at our session that afternoon, at 1 p.m.,
and the lunch meeting was my way of getting acquainted first. She had been recommended
as a speaker by Julianne Dalcanton, a member of the CSWA and a colleague of Denice’s at the
University of Washington. I hadn’t met her before, nor was I fully aware at that point of her many
accomplishments. I did know she was the Dean of Engineering (and I knew there were not many
women Deans of Engineering in our nation) so maybe I expected someone administrative - you
know: business-like manner, deep authoritative voice, navy blue suit.


So Denice was, to say the least, a surprise. Funky glasses, curly hair, casual beach-style
clothes, and slangy, hey-dude way of speaking. In my mind I affectionately dubbed her “surfer babe” Years later, when it was announced that Denice was going to Santa Cruz, I thought, oh yeah, makes sense. The whole laid-back California hippie thing seemed like a great fit.


Her style was as effective as it was refreshing. That afternoon in Seattle she had us all riveted
to our seats (when we weren’t rolling in the aisles with laughter—her comic timing was spot
on), describing her program to increase diversity in the School of Engineering at the University
of Washington. You can find her very useful“toolkit” for hiring on the UW web site (www.
washington.edu/admin/eoo/forms/ftk_01.html), as well as resources associated with the larger NSF
Advance project she led (www.engr.washington. edu/advance/resources/index.html). Much of
her advice was common sense: go search for candidates, don’t wait for their resumes to
come in over the transom; sell applicants on your institution, don’t act as if it would be
their privilege to join you (even if it would be); consider the situation of spouses and partners,
if needed (and learn how to assess that need without offending the candidate or breaking
the law!); talk to search committees about how to search, what to say, and especially what not
to say; and most of all, let everyone know the Dean is fully engaged in the process.

Denice’s talk generated so much discussion and so many questions she got through fewer
than half her viewgraphs. But it was enough, even without the additional hour of questions she
patiently answered after the hour-long session ended. Realizing now the demands of her job,
I marvel that she even found the time to come speak to us in the first place. It’s a sign of her
deep dedication to improving things for women and minorities in science and engineering, a
dedication that was recently recognized with the 2006 award from the Maria Mitchell Society
of Nantucket. (Mitchell was a famous woman astronomer of the 19th century, and the award
recognizes a person or organization who has helped to advance women in science.)


When it came time to plan the 2003 Women in Astronomy II conference at Caltech, Denice
was at the top of my wish list of speakers. To our delight, she agreed to speak, and in the event,
kept us all laughing with her talk, even as she fed us a very serious message. I can still picture her
in her trademark surfer-dude style, light green jungle-print pants with matching loose top,
curly blond mutton cut, those funky glasses, referring to the old guard as “bubbas” and implemented it. She showed us that, instead of worrying endlessly about what to do, getting distracted by all the many areas that needed attention, instead of trying to fix everything at once, you could just do this, you could hire a
diverse faculty. Most importantly, she showed once and for all that diversity does not come at
the price of excellence. Her faculty of color and her women engineers, with success upon success
after their arrival at UW (Denice described the abundance of NSF Career Awards that followed),
demonstrated explicitly how diversity enhances excellence. Her school’s reputation climbed, and
Denice’s did, too. Val Kuck, one of the leaders of the women chemists’ movement, wrote me
that, “At UW, the female faculty couldn’t say enough good things about her work and how
she really drove the reforms in the engineering community.” Tons of emails like that flew
around after the announcement of her death.


Everyone in “the movement” knew Denice. We all admired her dedication, her energy, and
her success. Whenever faculty hiring is discussed at my institution, Denice’s work follows in
the next breath. She taught us excuses are no longer acceptable. In large part because of her
pioneering work, we don’t buy the claim that“there aren’t any candidates” or “we asked
Sandy Faber and she wasn’t available.” We know we can do better.


But Denice did more than transform academic hiring. By example she taught us
to be tough, to shake off criticism and get on with what has to be done. Denice apparently
had some hard times early in her career. How much more impressive, then, her confidence,
her authority, her unhesitating attack on a difficult problem. She triumphed where others
might understandably have retreated. Even without specific opposition, it’s very stressful
being a pioneer. All bystanders are natural critics (especially scientists!) and those whose
oxen are being gored don’t take kindly to change. I wonder sometimes if the majority can
ever understand how difficult it is—how much energy it takes—just to maintain your self, just
to hold up your outer envelope, when you’re in the minority, and a path-breaker to boot.
Eventually, Denice’s energy got used up. Like all her admirers, I wish we could roll back the clock
and beam her a huge energy infusion from her thousands and thousands of fans. It’s too late
for that, so instead we’ll have to use our energy to bring to pass Denice’s agenda: excellence,
diversity, equal opportunity, and ultimately, a workplace that looks more like us.

 

Denice Denton earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from MIT. She was appointed to the faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1987, where she earned numerous awards as an outstanding teacher and educator. While there, she was the recipient of a NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award. She moved to the University of Washington as Dean of the College of Engineering in 1996, and was instrumental in the University’s ADVANCE program and in developing programs to enhance equal opportunity for women in engineering. She received the
Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematic and Engineering Mentoring in
2004. That same year, she was appointed as Chancellor of the Santa Cruz campus
of the University of California. Just this year, Chancellor Denton received the Maria
Mitchell Women in Science Award for her achievements in increasing opportunities for
women in the sciences.


For more information, and for many tributes to Denice’s accomplishments, as
well as interviews and articles, please see the following web sites:

Links to many remembrances: http://chancellor.ucsc.edu

Wisconsin: http://www.news.wisc.edu/12679.html

Washington: http://www.engr.washington.edu/advance/
http://www.mmo.org/subcat.php?cat_id= 14&subcat_id=54&art_id=173

“Leadership and Strategies for Cultural Change in a High Tech Environment”
speech given by Denice Denton at Google in 2005
http://www.anitaborg.org/news/publications/ cultural_change.php

The “Faculty Recruitment Toolkit” Denton inspired at the U. of Washington
http://www.washington.edu/admin/eoo/ forms/ftk_01.html

Denice Denton on cultural change: http://www.prism-magazine.org/sept01/

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