Dr. Denice Dee Denton, pioneer for women in sciences, dies

As an openly gay woman scientist, Denton endured discrimination and prejudice all the way up through her position as chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Published July 4, 2006 10:58PM (EDT)

On June 24, Denice Dee Denton, the chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, fell to her death from a skyscraper in San Francisco, apparently by jumping. Dr. Denton, the New York Times reports, "was once the only female dean at a top-tier research university, heading the College of Engineering at the University of Washington." The speakers at her memorial service, who included Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis, called her "a pioneer who had advanced the careers of other women and minorities in the sciences." Denton, who was 46 years old, was one of the scientists who criticized Harvard University president Larry Summers for his remarks about sex differences in the sciences last year.

Although Denton was the target of some criticism for her management of compensation practices by the University of California system, her apparent suicide came as a surprise and blow to the Santa Cruz community. The Times reports that "the attacks on her focused on some $600,000 in renovations to her residence on campus and the hiring of her longtime partner, Gretchen Kalonji, as system-wide director of international strategy development." But many felt that it was really Denton's being an openly gay woman that stirred the criticism and negative attention. Some colleagues said that Denton was concerned for her safety, especially after someone threw a parking barrier through a window at her house one night last June. (No one was ever charged, nor was a motive determined.)

Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, chancellor of the University of California at Merced, told the Times, "she was a gay woman who was a chancellor and an engineer. You know that she came though some pretty difficult times, as many people who are breaking down barriers did." And at the memorial service Angela Davis referred to "the swirling controversies" and "unrelenting homophobic attacks" that she felt Denton had endured.

In addition to a high-profile job in which she was subjected to possible prejudice and discrimination, Denton was under treatment for a severe thyroid problem; she went on medical leave on June 15, though the reason was undisclosed, the Times reports.

In her career Denton made inroads against the persistent and exhausting burden that is gender and sexual bias. We likely will never know the deeply personal reasons why she chose to take her own life, although it is abundantly clear that she led a remarkable one.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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