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The Mourning After

Campus and community come together to remember Denise Denton

By Rachel Stern


In the days following her June 24 suicide, Denice D. Denton was remembered in the media as both a distinguished leader with a commitment to diversity and a central figure in the controversy over university compensation practices. But during a campus memorial service this past Thursday, June 29, many also came to see UC-Santa Cruz's ninth chancellor in a light previously unexposed to the public eye.

Denton was a child who "drew outside of the lines, ran with scissors and spoke out of turn," according to her sister, Derri Denton. "If Denice's mission in life had been to paint a wall mural, the result would have been the Sistine Chapel," she said.

Gretchen Kalonji, Denton's partner of nine years and the only speaker without a previously prepared speech, spoke closely into the microphone, calling her "a brave, noble and incredibly effective warrior." She paused, lifting her fist as she pounded it on the podium for emphasis. "She liked to get. Things. Done."

Angela Davis, a former Black Panther, and professor of feminist studies and history of consciousness at UCSC, also spoke of her admiration for Denton's direct approach and commitment to principals. "She urged us to embrace social justice, not simply as an ideal to be accomplished elsewhere and on a grand scale, but also as a local strategy for the practical transformation of this community," said Davis. "She almost immediately announced plans for far-reaching diversity that would hopefully lead us into gender, class and sexuality inclusion."

Robert Dynes, president of the UC system, pointed out that Denton used her inaugural speech on Nov. 4, 2005, to immediately work on making change through her "Achieving Excellence Through Diversity" themed symposium.

Alice Agogino, a UC-Berkeley professor and former co-worker, only half-jokingly stated that Denton had a résumé of 50-plus pages. For nearly 10 years, Denton served as the dean of the College of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington, making her the first woman to hold such a position at an NRC-designated Research One University.

Her other achievements included winning the Maria Mitchell Woman in Science Award in 2006, and publicly denouncing the president of Harvard for stating that men are naturally better at math and science than women.

Denton, who held a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT, had faced adversity throughout her career.

She was locked out of an engineering research lab by a male co-worker at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was at the mercy of mass critiques for controversies around UCSC monetary practices: $600,000 spent in refurbishments to the chancellor's house, a $30,000 dog run and a $197,000 a year position for Kulonji, all at a time when UC tuition was being raised by 8 percent and many workers periodically spoke at protests of being underpaid.

"She did her best to facilitate as much good as she could," Med Mahmoud, a second-year physics and mathematics major at UCSC, told Metro Santa Cruz.

Carol Muller, the founder and CEO of MentorNet, a mentoring network for science and engineering students in San Jose, felt that Denton was underappreciated during her actual reign as chancellor.

"She wasn't the type of person that was deliberately seeking to create herself as an icon," Muller told Metro Santa Cruz. "She wanted to get the work done."

Davis came to a similar conclusion: "When I hear things like the community of Santa Cruz never really appreciated her, or knew what she had to offer, I think it's partially because she had humility," said Davis. "She was self-effacing; the work was about getting the work done, and not about individual icons. And yet she was an icon."


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