Obituary: Denice D. Denton--UC Santa Cruz chancellor; trailblazing woman in engineering, science and higher education

Denice D. Denton, a trailblazing engineer who broke through numerous barriers in her academic career to become chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, died June 24 in San Francisco.

Denton took the helm at UC Santa Cruz in February 2005 after serving nine years as the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, the first woman to hold the post at a top research institution. It was one of many "firsts" Denton acquired throughout her career, and she became a powerful role model and mentor for women and minorities in science and higher education.

An accomplished electrical engineer who held three patents, Denton earned a Ph.D. and three other engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of four children raised by a single mother in Texas, Denton discovered her passion for science and math during a high school summer program. That life-transforming experience fueled her passion for outreach programs and her commitment to making similar opportunities available to others. As her accomplishments catapulted her to the center stage of higher education nationally, she became an outspoken advocate for diversity in academia.

"Denice was an accomplished and passionate scholar whose life and work demonstrated a deep commitment to public service and to improving opportunity for the disadvantaged and underrepresented," said UC President Robert C. Dynes. "She was a person of enthusiasm, of big ideas, of tremendous energy, and of great promise. In a relatively short time at UC Santa Cruz, she began moving on ambitious plans for the campus and emerged as an important voice in national higher education issues."

As he prepared to bestow the President's Medal during Denton's November 2005 investiture ceremony at UCSC, Dynes called Denton "a trailblazer in pursuit of equity and multiculturalism."

At UCSC, where she served for 16 months, Denton was remembered by Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor David S. Kliger for her dedication "to opening doors for countless young people, particularly for women and minorities who wanted to pursue careers in engineering and science."

"She led this campus with clear statements of the importance of education in transforming lives and in creating opportunities for all," said Kliger. "She, herself, had lived that experience, rising from modest means to achieve with distinction at every stage in her life."

Last month, Denton won the 2006 Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award in recognition of her work advancing opportunities in science for women and girls. In 2004, she was among nine scholars honored by the White House with a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

In receiving the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award, Denton was singled out by one juror for using "the power of her leadership position to raise the visibility of issues related to supporting and advancing women and girls in science-related careers both on and off the campus." Another juror cited Denton's creative strategies to build mentoring networks. "Where they are few in number on a campus, women scientists have followed Denton's cues to find and support each other," she said.

Even before she took office at UCSC, Denton made headlines when she publicly refuted remarks about innate differences between women and men made by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers during an academic conference Denton attended. Calling the ensuing uproar a "teachable moment," Denton spoke of the necessity to "speak truth to power."

Student leaders hailed Denton's openness and advocacy. "She was at the forefront of the UC Sweatshop Free Campaign, and showed her commitment to diversity by providing funding for student-initiated outreach programs," wrote representatives of the UCSC Student Union Assembly, Graduate Student Association, and UC Student Association.

Denton began her teaching career in 1987 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was the only woman in the department of electrical and computer engineering and one of very few women in the College of Engineering. She also held academic appointments at the University of Massachusetts and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Z├╝rich.

At the University of Washington's College of Engineering, Denton co-founded the Center for Engineering, Learning and Teaching (CELT), a National Science Foundation program designed to improve engineering instruction. Other universities, including Harvard and Stanford, have modeled programs after it.

Denton often described her own experiences of isolation as a woman in a male-dominated field to underscore the need for greater outreach, and her accounts of those experiences resonated with many women in academia.

"It is with great sadness that I learn that a champion and role model for so many of us, Denice Denton, has passed away," said Betty Shanahan, executive director and chief executive officer of the Society of Women Engineers. "Her efforts in creating a more inclusive engineering profession have impacted not only many individuals but have benefited the entire profession."

Denton is survived by her partner Gretchen Kalonji; her mother, Carolyn Mabee; brother Deran Denton; sisters Derri Denton and Michelle Moore; as well as lifelong friend Dianna Beasley.

A campus celebration of Denton's life is set for Thursday, June 29, 2006, at 10 a.m., at the UC Santa Cruz Music Recital Hall.

At UCSC, a fund has been established to honor Chancellor Denton's vision and priorities for the campus. The Denice D. Denton Memorial Fund will pay tribute to her achievements as a leader in science and engineering, her advocacy for diversity, as well as her commitment to community. Gifts may be made online or sent to:

The Denice D. Denton Memorial Fund

UC Santa Cruz Foundation

University Relations-Gift Administration, Carriage House

UC Santa Cruz

1156 High Street

Santa Cruz, CA 95064