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What Can We Learn from the life of Denice Denton?

 In June, one of the country’s leading scientists and a prominent supporter of women’s equity in science fell to her death off the roof of the San Francisco skyscraper where she and her partner shared an apartment (see Newswatch).

Because she was Dr. Denice Dee Denton, chancellor of the University of California Santa Cruz, her apparent suicide was very public and very shocking. She was only 46, yet had amassed a string of fans, protegees, awards and achievements unlikely by one twice her age.

In the room when Harvard University’s ex-president Larry Summers said that women may not have an aptitude for math and science, Denton was quick to speak up. Hers and other voices caused such a stink that Harvard pledged $50 million to support women on campus.

People loved her wit and wisdom, propensity to speak the truth and courage. She mentored mentors, created new ways to make search processes more inclusive, encouraged countless women in science and created programs for them. She shared my middle name and had subscribed to WIHE since 2002, when a colleague sent her a free trial subscription.

In May 2005, after renewing her subscription for two years and got a free copy of Gender Equity or Bust!, she wrote us a letter of thanks. She’d “skimmed the table of contents and seen some very interesting topics,” and “looked forward to giving it a closer read.” Her letter went on the editor’s mental health wall.

What got to her?

  • It was the glass ceiling, according to M.R.C. Greenwood, who had preceded her as chancellor at UC-Santa Cruz for eight years and recently resigned as provost for the UC system, and Ann Sullivan, deputy director of the National Science Foundation.“Perhaps the most plausible speculation is that those who break the glass ceiling may be wounded‑even destroyed‑by the shards,” they wrote in an article in the San Jose Mercury News on July 2, 2006. Did the “harsh male-dominated environment faced by many female leaders at the highest levels of academic and corporate America” they mentioned contribute to her final decision?
  • She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her only previous administrative position had been dean of engi-neering, a field where logic is trump. That was hardly the case at Santa Cruz, where students in this California climate unleashed profane personal attacks on her and someone threw a parking barricade through her bedroom window. Nor did the California leaders who hired her rush to her support. When the media revealed that hers was one of the $334 million in secret contracts for administrators that exceeded University limits, the media frenzy fueled student pro-tests that turned ugly. The resulting sarcastic columns and political cartoons were vicious and humiliating.
  • It was her personal life. Her partner of nine years was Gretchen Kalonji, a professor of engineering at Washington, whose $192,000 job for the University system at Oakland was created for her, yet kept them apart. Some reports describe the relationship as “tumultuous” while others say “they were devoted to each other,” maybe on the same day.
  • A drug imbalance caused depression. Her cancerous thyroid was removed while a student at MIT, and she was taking medication to replace it. Having experienced the effects of low thyroid output, I know it can affect mental processes, temperature and energy level. Denton had been on medical leave, missing the university’s spring commencement, and was scheduled to return to work in two days.

What can we do?

With no note, we’ll never know which straw triggered her ultimate downward spiral. Maybe it was a combination of those things that finally pushed her over the edge.

Her death is a tragedy to those for whom she was a role model, friend, mentor and colleague. “Her colleagues wished we had her passion and strength while slogging through the detritus of the entrenched ‘old boys’ network,” Greenwood and Peterson wrote.

What can we do to protect those in similar positions, and others in continuing the effort to gain gender equity in science, engineering and throughout the academy?

To assure that she will not have died in vain, here are some suggestions:

  1. Support your local senior feminist. It’s lonely at the top,” Denton once advised. In today’s increasingly conservative political climate, women who stand up for fairness, justice and inclusiveness are an endangered species. It’s up to us as survivors to let them know, repeatedly, that in the face of adversity they have a lot of supporters and fans, they are role models to many, and their efforts at transformation are making a huge difference. Hugs work better than handshakes.
  2. Don’t assume that anyone is incapable of suicide. Called “a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” suicide can be a tempting option, especially at one’s darkest hour, alone in the middle of the night. Some experts say suicide is not impulsive, coming after a planning process. People in powerful positions are more likely than others to keep their emotions hidden, to appear in control, noted Patrick Meehan, director of the Women’s Health Center at Santa Cruz. “People like Dr. Denton are going to often do everything they can to hide their depression and not talk about it with others and not let on because of the stigma associated with it.”
  3. Embrace an upcoming report by the National Academies of Sciences on “maximizing the potential of women in academic science and engineering.” Denton was on the committee that produced the report, which will be dedicated to her memory. Greenwood and Peterson said that insisting that its recommendations be put into action would be the best possible way to commemorate Denton.

The tragedy in California can have a positive effect, if it leads to redoubling efforts to assure that women leaders and those in science/technology/engineering and mathematics take a giant step toward gender equity… and getting the last laugh.

Comments can be sent to Mary Dee Wenniger, Editor and Publisher

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