Adventures in Ethics and Science

Zuska reminded me that today is the one-year anniversary of the suicide of Denice Denton, an accomplished electrical engineer, tireless advocate for the inclusion and advancement of women in science and, at the time of her death, the chancellor of UC-Santa Cruz.

I never met Denton, and a year ago my feelings about her were complicated. On one side was her clear public voice against unexamined acceptance of longstanding assumptions about gender difference; from an article dated 26 June, 2006 in Inside Higher Ed:

She was in the audience when Lawrence H. Summers made the controversial comments about women and science last year and she was among the first to speak out against them, telling The Boston Globe of Summers: “Here was this economist lecturing pompously to this room full of the country’s most accomplished scholars on women’s issues in science and engineering, and he kept saying things we had refuted in the first half of the day.”

Any gathering of such scholars would indeed have included Denton, who was then dean of engineering (one of her many “first woman” accomplishments) at the University of Washington and was about to become chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Throughout her career in research (as an electrical engineer) and administration, she was known for being a mentor to women — in the public schools, in graduate school, at faculty levels. Last month, she was named this year’s winner of the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award — named for the first female astronomer in the United States and given to a person or organization who does the most to advance women in science.

On the other side, shortly before her death, Denton had been the subject of a San Francisco Chronicle story about the amount of money the UC system spent on administrator salaries and perquisites.

It may not surprise you that my view, as an assistant professor in a cash-strapped public university system, is that the proportion of spending on administrators’ compensation is too high. And, the Chronicle story used the deal Denton got from the UC to lure her from her position as engineering dean at University of Washington to make the case that these compensation packages were outrageously lavish. From the Chronicle article reporting Denton’s death:

[Gretchen] Kalonji, [Denton's partner] … was hired as director of international strategy development in the UC Office of the President in Oakland as part of Denton’s recruitment package… Denton had been provided a 2,680-square-foot home on the UC Santa Cruz campus, the subject of a story in a Chronicle series this spring examining perks and pay in the UC system.

Before she moved into her university-provided house on campus in 2005, she asked for dozens of improvements — everything from a new fence for her dogs to new wiring, speakers, amplifier and CD player for a built-in sound system, according to university documents. In all, a $600,000 upgrade was made to the home, though it is not clear how many of the improvements were at Denton’s request. Denton’s annual salary was $282,000.

As a result of that and other spending disclosed in the media, [UC President Robert] Dynes tightened rules for renovation projects at university-owned homes and the offices of top executives.

In 2005, UC unions protested the hiring of Kalonji, a former University of Washington professor of materials science, into a $192,000 UC management position. UC also provided Kalonji, then Denton’s partner of seven years, a housing assistance allowance of up to $50,000.

Denton may have been fighting to change things for women in science and engineering, but she wasn’t exactly leading the fight to bring more sanity to how public university systems in California spend their money.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that it’s unfair to blame her for this. The UC was trying to lure her to move from an administrative position at University of Washington — one she’d held for nine years and where, by all accounts, she was quite successful, and where, by the way, her partner had a faculty post — to a post at Santa Cruz that was anticipated to be anything but cushy. As reported by Inside Higher Ed:

Supporters of Denton said throughout the last year that — whatever one thinks of her compensation — she’s not to blame. She was being recruited to take a tough job and the university made her an offer to make the position attractive, they noted. Over the last two years, University of California officials have been criticized for pay and benefits for a number of top leaders. Unions that have been in negotiations with the university have had a field day with comparisons of the low pay some of their members receive, compared to the salaries of top administrators. And the result has been a steady wave of articles, protests and mocking editorial cartoons.

All of the furor over such issues overshadowed Denton’s agenda, which was focused on improving various academic programs while also stressing the need to diversify academic talent. She spoke in several languages in her inaugural address and held a symposium on diversity in higher education to mark her installation.

Not only were the protests against her personal, but at times she faced physical threats. A year ago, in the middle of the night, someone thrust a large metal pole through a window in the president’s home. Denton was in another room at the time, but had she been in the room where the glass was broken, she could have been seriously injured, according to a Santa Cruz spokeswoman. Several other times, protesters showed up at her door, refusing to leave. Several people who knew Denton said that she didn’t feel secure and there were rumors on the campus about her having around-the-clock security. The spokeswoman said that there had been some improvements in security, but that reports about around-the-clock security were exaggerations.

Leaving a job where you know you’re doing some good and taking one where you hope to make a difference, but then getting caught in the tangle of a preexisting systemic problem and becoming a lightning rod for protests and threats must be really disheartening. It’s hard to know whether Denton was being held up to a different standard than a male chancellor would have been, or whether there was more resistance to the idea that the UC should find a reasonable position for her partner given that she had a same-sex partner. (In the real world, it’s not reasonable to expect that the best person for the job you’re trying to fill will happily leave partner or spouse behind to fill that job.) And what kind of effect would it have had for UCSC’s newly-hired woman chancellor to say, “Please, you don’t need to offer me as much money as you’d offer a male candidate for the job”?

In the end, it’s hard to imagine that the pressure of the job, and of the high level of public scrutiny, didn’t make some difference in Denton’s decision to end her life. This leaves me tremendously sad. There are lots of things to be fixed in academia as it now stands, but the burden of fixing the whole thing shouldn’t rest on any one pair of shoulders. Feeling that we have to fix the whole thing ourselves, all at once, just burns out the good people who have actually noticed that there are things to be fixed. (The oblivious folks who think the status quo is just fine don’t get burned out.)

We have to get better at addressing structural problems without demonizing the folks who are doing the best they can to achieve change from within these structures. We have to remember that it’s possible to think that administrative expenditures are too high without judging individual administrators evil for depositing their paychecks — especially when those administrators really are allies in the slow struggle to make things better.

You may want to check out the memorial webpage UCSC has set up to recognize the impact Denton had on the academic community.


  1. #1 llewelly
    June 23, 2007

    I can’t help but point out that any number of similarly accomplished electrical engineers have gotten significantly greater compensations from private companies.

  2. #2 Bill
    June 23, 2007

    Denton’s accomplishments seem rather extraordinary to me. Could you name some of these “similarly accomplished electrical engineers” and give details of their compensation packages?

  3. #3 Polly Anna
    June 23, 2007

    Oh my goodness!

    Suicide and other lashing out like sibling or loved one killing prior to committing suicide seems to have different rationalizations, context-dependence in interpretation relative to socio-psychological viewpoint and tribal association, e.g. gender, genetic group, many other factors. Tribal suicide bombings seem to have some increased level of tolerance in the current stage of evolution, no less a challenge to comprehend.

    Why does this person get such tribute and sympathy relative to those who the idea never crossed their mind while voluntarily (this lady was obviously in such a position) or involuntarily.

    To be or not to be, that is the question; Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing, end them.

    Oh, my goodness, this never crossed my mind in my context and thousands others like me down through history.

    Is there some lesson here? Do we need suicide bombers to make the point that our inherited genomes including the xx or xy situation are dramatically different?

    The number and composition of chromosomes whether even, or odd, is what defines a species. Symbiosis is a shared survival trait. In a symbiosis, dominance or destruction of one of the other of the species means the end of both, despite the illusion and elation of the short period of dominance of one of the species.

    Polly A.

    [Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart--Anne Frank]

  4. #4 MikeP
    June 24, 2007

    I don’t know what the situation is like at UC, but at our university, there very recently was a union drive. The union gained a lot of traction by comparing the statements of senior administration (“for years we’ve been saying do more with less, now we’re saying do less with less, because the money just isn’t there”) with the activities of some management (“forget what he said, do still more with still less”) and the salaries of senior administration (nearly tripled in the last decade or so).

    The comparisons weren’t entirely fair, but neither were they entirely unfair either.

    As for Denton herself, even if the perks were outrageous (they would be at many institutions in this country, but not egregiously so, I don’t think), it’s not her fault for taking what was offered. That being said, if UC receives public funding it’s entirely fair for the public that’s footing the bills to demand answers of the more senior administration.

  5. #5 Two L
    June 24, 2007

    I guess science didn’t solver her problems, did it?

  6. #6 MikeP
    June 24, 2007

    I perhaps should clarify – the union drive was targeting support staff only. Senior administration referred to are, by and large, non-academic, or former academics who moved into administration jobs. There’s a clear distinction at our university between academics and staff (as I’m sure there is at most places), although that gets a bit fuzzy when you start talking to and about librarians.

  7. #7 Coathangrrr
    June 24, 2007

    First off, Polly Anna and Two L, you two are horrible.

    Second, I think it is so sad that there are loads of men out there in administration positions who don’t get this same kind of scrutiny. And the fact that it is a woman who suddenly got all this harassment can’t be a coincident.