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Suicide of a Chancellor

Suicide of a Chancellor
June 26, 2006

In the last 18 months, as issues of women in science have received unprecedented attention, Denice D. Denton has been front and center. 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.

While Denton's views on women and science were increasingly sought after and she rose to lead a top research university, her time as chancellor has been full of tension. Earlier this month, to cite the most recent example, students surrounded Denton in her car in the parking lot, refusing to let her get out or drive away until they put on a skit about racism as part of their campaign to get more money for janitors on campus.

Denton's career -- highly successful in many regards, but challenged of late -- came to an end Saturday morning when she leapt to her death from the roof of a San Francisco high rise. Denton had been on medical leave for 10 days, missing the commencement ceremonies at Santa Cruz, but she had been expected to be back on the campus today. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Denton's mother told police that she was "very depressed" about her professional and personal life.

Experts on higher education could not think of other examples of a college president taking his or her own life. In 1995, the then-president of Coe College tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists. After a leave and treatment for depression, he returned to the college as chancellor and subsequently left. Generally, experts said that while college presidents do talk about mental health issues, the focus is on balance of work and family life or dealing with stress, not dealing with depression. And while hesitating to generalize from Denton's case, some suggested it may point to the difficulty presidents and boards have grappling with issues of mental health.

Constant Scrutiny

Even by the standards of today's college presidency, Denton faced incredible scrutiny from her arrival at Santa Cruz last February. She was recruited with a salary of nearly $300,000 -- and criticism of her appointment grew when word spread that her partner had been hired to an administrative post with a salary of nearly $200,000. (Denton was one of the few gay and lesbian presidents in the United States to be out, and while there was no overt criticism of her sexual orientation, her partner's hiring resulted in constant references to it.)

This year, the renovations of the chancellor's home became controversial. Total costs topped $600,000. University officials characterized the spending as appropriate because much of it was in public areas of the home, used for official functions, and because other parts of the home were overdue for maintenance. But press reports emphasized a $30,000 dog fence, among other items.

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.

Presidents and Mental Health

Experts on the college presidency said that the tragedy of Denton's suicide shouldn't be read as a comment on the stress of leading academic institutions. That stress is great just about everywhere, they said, and most presidents aren't suicidal. At the same time, they said that -- whatever prompted Denton's death -- it raises questions of how boards handle or ignore presidents' personal difficulties.

Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who represents boards and presidents in their negotiations over contracts, said that Denton's death made him think about a negotiation he is currently handling for a college where the board is pleased with the performance of a president and wants to extend her contract. When Cotton approached the president, she said she liked her job but remarked that in her entire term as president, no board member had ever asked her how her life was going. As it turns out, a major issue for her is that she needs some time off to care for aging parents.

Cotton said that he thinks the contract they are negotiating will be able to deal with that, but that it's sad that there would be so little communication between a board and a president over her mix of professional and personal needs.

Boards are making some gestures of caring about presidents' health, Cotton said. He is seeing more contracts that specifically provide for the college to pay for a complete physical once a year (some private colleges are providing "executive physicals," which are conducted in more luxurious settings than a regular office). But at the same time, he said that it was a shame that so few boards will pay for sabbaticals for presidents. The irony, he said, is that boards routinely authorize a sabbatical at the end of a successful presidency, as a reward for a job well done, but don't like the idea of one in the middle of a presidency, when it might extend and improve a chief executive's performance.

It can be hard for presidents to talk about being burned out, even if they are, Cotton said. "Generally speaking, presidents like to project invulnerability, so they are unlikely to say something as specific as that, but boards need to listen more carefully than they do when presidents say 'I need a sabbatical.'"

Judith Block McLaughlin, director of the Higher Education Program at Harvard University and education chair of the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents, said that much depends on the relationship between the presidents and the board. She knows of cases where presidents have sought time off to deal with personal difficulties -- with board members being supportive -- and of cases where presidents were reluctant to ask.

McLaughlin said that public college presidents may have more difficulty out of fear that details about a leave might become more public than they would want. Even if a leave is approved in executive session, the announcement would fuel press speculation.

Generally, McLaughlin said, boards have more awareness of the importance of mental health issues than knowledge of what to do. She cited the experience of several presidents when, in 1994, Neil Rudenstine -- then president at Harvard -- took a sudden leave, citing exhaustion. After a particularly unflattering photograph of Rudenstine was published, several presidents told McLaughlin that they had received calls from their board chairs or other trustees.

"How are you doing?" the board members wanted to know. But as soon as they were assured that their president wasn't about to collapse, "that was the end of the conversation," she said. "It wasn't, 'Can I help you?'"

Said McLaughlin: "I think boards are concerned and aware, but they don't have good ideas about how to make it more manageable. The same boards that are concerned have the same high expectations that they have always had."

 

 

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