25 June 2006


Denise Denton, R.I.P.

Well, shit. I hate reading that someone that I knew has committed suicide, but apparently that's what's happened with Denise Denton, who had become chancellor at the University of California, Santa Clara. Story here from the L.A. Times.
Police and UC officials confirmed the death of Denice Dee Denton, 46, an electrical engineer who became chancellor of the Northern California school in February 2005 and apparently was the first openly gay campus leader in the UC system.

She jumped from the building where her partner of more than eight years, Gretchen Kalonji, lived. Kalonji, who holds a management position at UC headquarters, was in Washington, D.C., on university business, UC officials said.

Denton, known nationally for encouraging more women and minorities to study science, engineering and math, had gone on a medical leave June 15 but was scheduled to return to work Monday, according to campus spokesman Jim Burns.

He said he did not know any details of her medical condition and was not aware of any personal problems or depression that might have led to suicide.

In a statement, UC President Robert C. Dynes said Denton's death was "a tremendous loss for the entire University of California family" and described her as "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."
You might recall that Denise took some heat from anti-gay types for her securing the appointment of her partner as the Systemwide Director of International Strategy Development for the University of California system. The whiners ignored the fact that many married university presidents (and other university appointments) often cut deals for their spouses (who am I kidding: in all most all cases we're talking men as presidents and women as spouses) to secure the primary hire. The UC system did what it had to do to hire Denise given that she couldn't legally get married under California law.

I knew her when I was an undergrad at MIT. She was a grad student, and she would often hang out at Jerry Lettvin's lab. Her "boyfriend" at the time was an older technical staff person. I didn't have any idea she wasn't straight (for all I know he might not've been, too, and it could've been a mutual arrangement), and at the time, I was always on guard to make sure that no one knew I wasn't either, even though I didn't have a "beard" at the moment.

She was bright and fun. She and Maya Paczuski, who if I recall correctly were both involved in MIT's Concourse program for froshlings, used to have more fun than they should've just saying "foot" in a very Southern, very inappropriate and confusing to New Englanders and Yankees, kind of way. As in, "my, foot," as an expression of disbelief. In Denise's world it was just "foot." I didn't really know her much beyond that, but I had seen her progress professionally. She had made incredible progress given the professional framework that works against women succeeding in engineering or in engineering education.

I hate hearing that people I know or know of have snuffed it. I harbor enough moralistic "suicide wrong" notions as evidenced in pop culture by Cheap Trick's "Auf Wiedersehen" or Zappa's "Suicide Chump,", but I know that underneath every suicide is a matter of something having gone wrong between circumstances, brain chemistry, and brain wiring.

Rest in Peace, Denise. I'll still think of you, like I have since the mid 80s, whenever I say "my, foot."

Update: Some what-if thoughts on depression as cancer here.

Very sad. I'd never heard of her, but it sounds like not only a personal tragedy but a loss for her institution and for higher ed in general.

I don't think academic joint hiring is always a case of finding a job for the wife in order to snag the husband. I used to work with a couple for whom it was the other way around. Remember that this sort of hiring happens at the level of ordinary faculty, too, not just university presidents. Below the glass ceiling it's not uncommon to find an academic couple where the wife is the bigger star.
This is one of the best tributes I've read about Denice Denton. Thank you for sharing your undergrad experience with her--her fundamental decency and humanity come through clearly.
As a grad student at UW, I met her a few times and she always came across as a powerful person. We had a few engineering art contests and remember her selecting my work for the "dean's award"...

Good tribute. I was an ECE student in a class she taught at UW-Madison in 1988. She was a great teacher. She had a great way of teaching that made the class memorable and the subject easier to understand. I just found out about it today. Very sad.
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