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Ex-UCI chancellor and planetary scientist Laurel Wilkening dies

Laurel L. Wilkening
Laurel Wilkening was UC Irvine’s third chancellor and the third female chancellor in University of California history.
(Courtesy of UC Irvine)

Laurel Wilkening, who led UC Irvine for five years as its third chancellor and studied comets and moon rocks as a planetary scientist, died June 4, the university said. She was 74.

Wilkening served as vice chairwoman of the National Commission on Space under President Ronald Reagan, edited a textbook on comets and ran a planetary laboratory.

In 1993, after serving in leadership posts at the University of Arizona and University of Washington, Wilkening was named chancellor at UCI, becoming the third female chancellor in the history of the University of California system.

“She set the campus on an upward trajectory that is still benefiting us today,” current UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman said in a statement.

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During Wilkening’s five-year tenure, UCI received its first two Nobel Prizes, completed 250,000 square feet of construction and increased its private, state and federal funding, according to the university.

“She was a terrific leader who set clear priorities to build and expand research programs throughout the university,” Sidney Golub, who was Wilkening’s executive vice chancellor before returning to teaching and research in the School of Medicine, said in a statement.

She also taught a freshman seminar and required other top executives to do the same, Golub said. For a time, the chancellor’s conference room was “decorated with solar system models from her class,” he recalled. “She felt strongly that leadership needed to be involved in the community and the classroom.”

In 1996, UCI was invited to join the prestigious Assn. of American Universities, and Wilkening was instrumental in creating University Research Park, which became a national model for collaboration between the private sector and university researchers, according to UCI.

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After she retired in 1998, Wilkening moved to Arizona, where her husband (who died in 2007) operated a vineyard near Tucson. She remained active as a board member for the Planetary Society, the University of Arizona Commission on the Status of Women and various environmental groups.

In 2005, her successor at UCI, then-Chancellor Ralph Cicerone, dedicated the Laurel L. Wilkening Rose Garden in front of the Irvine Barclay Theatre in her honor. Four years later, Wilkening received the UCI Medal, which recognizes contributions to the university’s teaching, research and public service.

In 2013, an asteroid discovered by NASA-funded astronomers at the University of Arizona was named Wilkening.

Wilkening is survived by her brother and sister-in-law Wes and Mary Wilkening, niece Whitney Wilkening and nephew Ron Douglas.

Services will be held Wednesday in Tucson. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Assn. at alz.org.

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