UCLA ready to name biologist as chancellor

Times Staff Writers

University of Virginia Provost Gene D. Block will become the next chancellor of UCLA, if his appointment is approved by the University of California’s Board of Regents in a special meeting Thursday, according to sources close to the search.

UC President Robert C. Dynes is expected to ask the regents to appoint Block, 58, a biologist, to fill the position left vacant by the departure last summer of Albert Carnesale, the sources said. Block has held the No. 2 post at the University of Virginia since 2001.

UCLA law professor Norman Abrams has served as acting chancellor of the campus since Carnesale stepped down and, assuming the new leader is approved, is expected to remain in the job until Block’s arrival in July, the sources said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the search process.


Block is described by those who know him as quiet and low-key, though approachable and popular with faculty and students alike. His expertise in science has not precluded him from fostering strong ties to faculty in areas such as the humanities and social sciences, and several colleagues also emphasized Block’s role at the University of Virginia in helping to increase racial and gender diversity among the faculty.

“He’s not afraid of complicated, difficult issues,” said Gertrude Fraser, who has worked closely with Block as the university’s vice provost for faculty advancement. “He’s dealt with them.”

That ability could serve Block in good stead as he arrives at a campus whose leadership is dealing with a number of complex, high-profile issues, including efforts to increase student diversity, a particular concern being the low number of African Americans on campus, and cost overruns at the university’s long-delayed new medical centers.

UCLA also is wrestling with recent public embarrassments. Last week, university officials announced that a computer security breach may have exposed the Social Security numbers and other personal information of about 800,000 people connected with the university.

And officials recently opened an investigation into the videotaped Tasering of a student by a UCLA police officer in the campus library.

If approved by the regents, Block, an expert in biological rhythms, would become the ninth permanent leader of the university since its founding in 1919.

Reached by e-mail Monday, Block declined to comment, referring questions to Dynes’ office at UC’s Oakland headquarters.

UC spokesman Michael Reese also declined to discuss the UCLA search, but confirmed that a candidate’s name will be brought Thursday to the governing board of the 10-campus UC system. That meeting is scheduled to be held by teleconference, with several regents, Dynes and the candidate likely to be on hand at UCLA, the sources said.

At UCLA, sources said that because the regents’ vote would occur during the holiday break, Block, if approved, would probably return in January to meet faculty and students.

The news that Block had emerged in recent weeks as the sole remaining candidate for the UCLA job followed a similar situation in April, when word leaked that Dynes was close to naming Syracuse University Provost Deborah A. Freund to the post. But she withdrew from consideration in May, apparently because her husband, a labor economist at Syracuse, was not offered a professorship at UCLA.

UC officials were forced to reopen the search. Abrams, a longtime law professor at UCLA, was named acting chancellor a short time later.

Abrams has been praised by many at UCLA for his decisive handling of sensitive issues. But several faculty members said Monday that it would be good for the university to know now who its new leader will be.

“We can’t really do much planning without knowing the direction of that senior leadership,” said English Department Chairman Thomas Wortham. “I think the sooner we know who the chancellor will be, the better off we are.”

Block, if approved, would be swapping one highly regarded public university for another.

Both the University of Virginia and UCLA are considered “public Ivies” and both attract top faculty and students. In the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings, the University of Virginia tied with the University of Michigan for 24th among “top national universities” in the country. UCLA ranked 26th.

But Block would be moving to a campus that is substantially larger than the University of Virginia, which has a total enrollment of about 20,000, compared with about 38,000 for UCLA. That campus’ surroundings in busy Westwood also would be a dramatic change from the Virginia school’s graceful setting in far less urban Charlottesville.

UCLA places more emphasis than the University of Virginia on engineering and related sciences, but the two institutions have much in common, including prominent medical, law and business schools.

The UCLA job would mark a return to the West Coast for Block. Although he grew up in Monticello, N.Y., he earned his bachelor’s in psychology from Stanford and his master’s and doctorate, both in psychology, from the University of Oregon. After postdoctoral training at Stanford, he was appointed assistant professor of biology at the University of Virginia in 1978 and has remained there since.

Block, whose most recent research projects include the effect of aging on brain cells that form the biological clock, moved into administrative ranks in 1993, when he became the University of Virginia’s vice president for research and public service. But throughout his administrative career -- in an attribute he shares with Dynes -- Block has remained an active scientist, maintaining a lab on the Virginia campus. He is expected to do the same at UCLA.

Virginia faculty members and administrators who were interviewed Monday praised Block as a collaborative leader with a good sense of humor.

“He is not pompous, he does not come across as a ‘nose in the air’ academic,” said David W. Breneman, dean of the Virginia campus’ school of education. “I can’t imagine him being anything but a success” at UCLA.

Robert M. O’Neil, president of the University of Virginia from 1985 to 1990 and still a law professor there, said Block had been “an extraordinarily effective provost, but he’s not very high-profile.” He described Block as “quiet and extremely effective in a quiet, low-key fashion.”

O’Neil said, however, that he had no doubts that Block could make the switch to the higher profile he would need to succeed as the chancellor of a major university such as UCLA.

Kenneth Schwartz, an architecture professor who is chairman of the University of Virginia’s faculty senate, agreed, calling Block a strong leader as provost, but one who managed to be inclusive of others’ views.

“He’s very smart and knows his own mind but is also a very good listener,” Schwartz said. “If this does happen, we’ll miss him very much.”




Gene D. Block

Title: Vice president and provost, University of Virginia

Age: 58

Personal: Married, two children

Hometown: Monticello, N.Y.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Stanford University, 1970; master’s, University of Oregon, 1972; doctorate, University of Oregon, 1975; postdoctoral work, Stanford, 1975-78

Scientific specialty: Research into the cellular basis for the patterns of sleep and wakefulness exhibited by organisms.

Career highlights: Alumni Council Thomas Jefferson professor of biology at the University of Virginia; founding director of National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center in Biological Timing; chairman of the board of the National Institute of Aerospace.

Source: University of Virginia