UCI Chancellor Finds the Welcome Mat Out

From an on-campus ice cream social to an elegant buffet supper on tony Linda Isle, welcome-to-Orange-County bashes are filling Laurel Wilkening's calendar.

On Thursday, UC Irvine's new chancellor was welcomed by board members of the university's health sciences support groups at a Southwestern-themed fest in the Newport Beach bay home of Doug and Jean Liechty.

Earlier last week, Wilkening--formerly academic provost at the University of Washington--was feted at a Beckman Laser Institute reception.

In her future: lunch with Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren and parties with members of the school's Chancellors and CEO Roundtable clubs.

"I'm finding Orange County very easy to adapt to, very comfortable," Wilkening said on Thursday. "One of the things I like about the county is that people are so engaged in it.

"For example, when I meet with business people, there's a lot of conversation about how we can improve the business climate here. Everyone is very engaged in trying to improve things."

Peter the Anteater (James Smith, 27, a UCI pharmacology student), the school's mascot, was on hand to greet the willowy Washington native. "Are you the same Peter I met the other day?" asked Wilkening, peering up at the woolly creature. He nodded his head. "Oh! Thank you for coming," she said, laughing.


A distinguished planetary scientist who graduated phi beta kappa in chemistry from Reed College in Portland, Ore., and earned her Ph.D. at UC San Diego, Wilkening, 48, said she never dreamed of becoming a university chancellor.

"I'm a one-step-at-a-time person," she said. "I did not hop out of the cradle saying 'I want to be a chancellor!'

"Let's face it. When I went to college, we all were supposed to get married right after we graduated. The idea of going to graduate school didn't occur to me until I was almost a senior. So, one step at a time. " (Wilkening has been married for 19 years to Godfrey T. Sill, a retired planetary science researcher.)

Wilkening looks forward to attending Orange County social events on behalf of the university. "I will go into the community every minute I can spare. I really like the people here," she said.

What will she do in her leisure time? "I'm still exploring my options. So far, I've taken one kayak class. But mostly, I've been shopping at the usual places--Fashion Island and South Coast Plaza."


Party hostess Jean Liechty did her homework, learned that Wilkening was a bird-watcher. (In fact, she has been an avid bird-watcher since childhood.)

So, during the party formalities, Liechty presented the chancellor with a wide-brim straw hat. "This is a Newport Beach lifeguard hat; wear it and you will blend right in with the kids," Liechty said.

Party chairwoman Peggy Goldwater Clay and her co-chairwoman, Gloria Osbrink, keyed into Wilkening's love of the Southwest (she spent her childhood in New Mexico) for the Thursday reception. A red chili pepper pinata hung on a courtyard tree. A patio cart bloomed with cacti and scarlet bougainvillea. Some members of the party committee brought Southwestern-themed food to the affair. Goldwater brought her own, bottled Goldwater Sedona Red Salsa. Osbrink whipped up guacamole.

" I didn't bring food; I have a virgin stove," joked Sandra Brodie. "I did the decorations."


When guests weren't chatting with Wilkening, they were chatting about her. "I'm looking forward to her contributions to Orange County," said Aram Keith, a member of the UC Irvine Foundation board. "She's a new intellect in the community with new ideas. That's always refreshing."

Said Mary Roosevelt, a coordinator for UC Irvine's department of education: "Dr. Wilkening is a fantastic individual--so talented--a scholar with ideas who is great with people. What more could you want?"

If Roosevelt were asked to introduce Wilkening to the university, she would tell her "it's still a very young, adolescent university that needs loving care and a lot of patience," she said. "But a great place to be."

Also among guests were Donna Howard, assistant vice chancellor ("This intimate kind of event is Wilkening's style," she noted. "She likes things on a human scale as opposed to a throng of thousands"); Kathy Jones, vice chancellor, university advancement; Nora and Charles Hester; Annette Hurwitz; Scott and Mary Lou Hornsby; and Orange County Supervisor Thomas Riley and his wife, Emma Jane.

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