Symposium Offers Lessons from Life of Denice Denton

“She opened doors and stood in them to let others through. She mentored young scholars and students. She pushed the institutions she inhabited to be better than they wanted to be.”

With the suicide of UC-Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice D. Denton in June 2006, women in science and engineering especially lost a leader and a champion. Last month the University of Wisconsin, whose engineering department was the spawning ground of the woman who was called “Tsunami” as an assistant professor of engineering, held a symposium to celebrate her life and legacies. Since I was invited by both the organizing committee as a supporter of women and by the dean of engineering as a tennis teammate of his wife, there was no question of my attendance. This month’s issue starts with the keynote address by Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami. Later issues will feature articles on strategies and tactics for women’s success from individual sessions that will be relevant to all women on campus.

Mary Dee Wenniger, Editor and Publisher

Keynoter Donna Shalala was chancellor of the flagship Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin while Dr. Denice Denton was an assistant professor of engineering there. From there Shalala went on to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services in the Clinton administration for eight years, then become president of the University of Miami, where she remains.

Denton went on to shake up the Wisconsin campus, then the University of Washington where she was dean of engineering. In 2005 at the age of 45 she went to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she was chancellor until her death in June 2006.

Shalala has recently attended the memorials of three distinguished women in science. “Fearless is a word that applies to all three,” she said. It has always been fearless women in science that made Wisconsin a special place, she said, especially those who are imbedded into an institution and have committed themselves to changing it.

Discrimination at Syracuse, CUNY

Shalalala recalled starting her PhD program at Syracuse University in the late 1960s. Meeting with her department chair, she learned that as a women she was not eligible for financial aid. The male chair pulled out a report that indicated fewer women finished their degrees and had successful careers, so women were a bad financial investment.

After complaining to the dean about this treatment, she did finish a PhD at Syracuse, moved to a tenured professorship at Columbia University NY and then began teaching at CUNY’s Baruch University. At the end of her second year of teaching, despite having the “highest teaching rating and more publications than the entire department put together,” she was told to forget getting tenure there. “You won’t get tenure because this department never has and never will give tenure to a woman,” she was told.

Shalala then joined a famous class-action lawsuit against the City Colleges of New York for blatant discrimination, she recalled, and each of the plaintiffs won $50,000, which they donated to the Women’s Studies program at CUNY.

It never happened to her again, she said, because “a lot of white guys had decided that their institution could be competitive only if it recruited the best talent,” she said, quoting a conclusion, “There’s no future for American education if it ignores part of its talent.”

Even in working government, she found no discrimination against her because, “I had the money and the power.”

National Academy of Sciences report

Shalala headed the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Sciences and Engineering, where Denton was one of 18 members. Its report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Sciences and Engineering,” was published in September 2006 and dedicated to Denton.

“For the first time, we rigorously reviewed the literature and examined cultural practices in the academy that discourage women, including innate differences” between the sexes, Shalala explained. Over a year and a half, there were lots of phone calls and three face-to-face meetings. “I’ve never before been on a committee where everyone participated,” she noted.

As chair, Shalala got to appoint two members. She chose Denton and UW plant pathology professor Jo Handelsman, who were like “wild horses” and transformed the panel into “anything but dull.”

In dedicating the report to Denton, Shalala wrote:

“Denice Denton was an extraordinarily talented scholar, educational leader, and relentless voice for progress…. She was bigger than life. She opened doors and stood in them to let others through. She mentored young scholars and students. Her enthusiasm for science was clear and infec-tious. She was a force—a magnificent force. She pushed the institutions she inhabited to be better than they wanted to be.”

The report provided eight findings, a chapter each of evidence refuting 11 commonly-held beliefs concerning women in science and engineering, conclusions and specific sets of recommendations for top university leaders (trustees, presidents and provosts), deans and department chairs and their tenured faculty, university leaders working with their faculties and chairs, professional societies and higher ed organizations, federal funding agencies and foundations, federal agencies and Congress.

Here are the report’s eight findings.

#1. Women have the ability and drive to succeed in science and engineering. Studies found no significant differences in brain structure and function, hormonal effects or human cognitive development or evolution that would account for the dearth of women in academic faculty and scientific leadership.

#2. Women who are interested in science and engineering careers are lost at every educational transition. Women lose interest between high school and college, during college and graduate school, and all the way through to becoming full professors. Private and public schools are beginning to close the gap for undergraduates.

#3. The problem is not simply the pipeline. In several fields, the pipeline has reached gender parity. But big research universities continue to refuse to hire women, even those with a PhD, Shalala said, noting that the University of Miami physics department had never even interviewed a female candidate for a faculty position.

#4. Women are very likely to face discrimination in every field of science and engineering. Barriers limit the appointment, retention and advancement of women, especially minority group women. Noting that the women on the committee reported fascinating stories of discrimination, Shalala said, “The plural of anecdote is data.”

#5. A substantial body of evidence establishes that most people—men and women—hold implicit biases. People (including scientists and engineers) are less likely to hire a woman, give women credit for their work or give women the benefit of the doubt than they are with men.

#6. Evaluation criteria contain arbitrary and subjective components that disadvantage women. Women faculty are paid less, are promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors and hold fewer leadership positions than men. Characteristics believed to be important for scientific creativity—assertiveness and single-mindedness—are socially unacceptable traits in women. Others like flexibility, diplomacy, curiosity, motivation and dedication receive less weight, although they may be more vital to success in science and engineering.

#7. Academic organizational structures and rules contribute significantly to the under use of women in aca-demic science and engineering. Those lacking the traditional support of a “wife” are at a serious disadvantage: 90% of the spouses of women faculty in science and engineering work full-time, compared with less than 50% of the spouses of the male faculty in those fields.

#8. The consequences of not acting will be detrimental to the nation’s competitiveness. This “economic argument” notes that women make up an increasing large part of the workforce and the majority of postsecondary students, a source of talent that needs to be captured and capitalized upon.

When Shalala was on sabbatical in Japan before reporting to the University of Wisconsin as chancellor, she told the Japanese that America would best them because “We’re going to use all our talent, including women and minorities, to beat you.” She said industry has moved faster than higher education to embrace women and minorities because they “get it” and can’t afford not to make decisions based on women.

“We’ve made all this progress in two generations,” she said, but warned that unless we change fundamentally, the “very fragile enterprise of higher education won’t survive.”

We need to be reminded of what Denice Denton taught us, Shalala said: “That you never give up!” As reinforcement Shalala keeps a children’s book handy: The Little Engine that Could.

Contact Mary Dee Wenniger, Editor and Publisher

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