Head of UC Santa Cruz Dies After Apparent Jump

Times Staff Writers

The chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, a prominent advocate for women in technical fields criticized for seeking expensive perks and helping her partner obtain a UC job, apparently leaped to her death from the roof of a 43-story building here Saturday morning.

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.”

UC system spokesman Michael Reese said Saturday that Denton was not under investigation and didn’t face any censure or discipline as a result of recent audits and legislative probes into benefits and perquisites for a large group of UC executives.

Though he stressed that he could not speculate on her state of mind, he said those issues and recent reforms did “not seem to be related” to her death.

Earlier this year, the UC system announced tighter controls on spending for bonuses and for improvements to university-owned properties where its top officials live. That grew out of criticism of several costly projects, including an approximately $600,000 upgrade to Denton’s campus home. Part of that was for a $30,000 dog run, which the university reported as extra taxable income for Denton after controversy arose, Reese said.


The late chancellor also faced protests from UC labor unions last year about Kalonji’s new job as head of the system’s international strategy development, at an annual salary of $192,000.

UC officials said it is customary for universities to try to find positions for qualified spouses and partners of new high-ranking hires from out of state. They said Kalonji, who was a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Washington, was suited to the UC job, which is based in Oakland.

Reese said Saturday that Kalonji’s hiring was no longer an issue of debate. “That was settled business,” he said.

Born in Texas, Denton earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 1996, she was appointed dean of engineering at the University of Washington -- the first woman to hold such a post at a major research university.

She was one of the youngest UC chancellors in recent memory when she took the job in Santa Cruz, which pays $282,000 a year.

Denton made headlines last year by criticizing Larry Summers, then Harvard University’s president, who suggested in a meeting Denton attended that women achieve less in science because of innate gender differences. Summers’ statement contributed to the faculty unrest that led to his resignation four months ago.

Gerald Parsky, chairman of the UC Board of Regents, said the governing panel was “shocked and saddened” by Denton’s death. Stressing that he knew no details, he declined to comment further other than to say: “It’s certainly surprising to all of us who knew her.”

Regent Joanne Kozberg said Denton’s death was “just really horrific for the family, the community, and it will be for the students and the faculty on the campus.”

David Kliger, provost and executive vice chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, will lead the 15,000-student campus while officials start the search for Denton’s replacement.

Denton apparently jumped to her death from the Paramount Apartments building, which looms above Yerba Buena Gardens just south of the city’s financial district.

San Francisco Police Sgt. Neville Gittens said a guest at the nearby Argent Hotel called police at 8:17 a.m. to report a body lying on the roof of the Paramount’s garage.

Paramedics pronounced Denton dead at the scene, Gittens said.


Gordon reported from Los Angeles and Romney from San Francisco. Times staff writers Rebecca Trounson and Cara Mia DiMassa contributed to this report.