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Stateside with Rosalea: Over the Edge

Stateside with Rosalea:

Over the Edge

In San Francisco on Friday night or early Saturday morning, the chief executive of a multi-million dollar enterprise, criticised for seeming cronyism in both the media and in the California state legislature, leapt from a 43-storey apartment building where the beneficiary of the alleged cronyism lived, finally defeated by that very public criticism and by private-life events.

It is a major irony that this is Gay Pride Week in San Francisco, for the executive is the Chancellor of the University of California's campus in Santa Cruz, Denice Denton, and her life partner is a woman, who was in Washington DC on business for her own employer, the Office of the President (of the University of California), at the time of the tragedy.

It is a tragedy beyond what is obviously a very personal tragedy for the families and friends of those involved. It's a tragedy not because of the same-sex relationship--UC Santa Cruz is well-known for its love of lavender--but because Denton was pushed beyond what she could endure as part of an orchestrated effort to destroy the entire University of California system by targeting individuals at each of the ten campuses. Well, that’s how I see it, anyway.

It is difficult for me to contain my anger about Denton's death. It's none of my business and I know none of the affected parties. I don't subscribe to the idea that someone is good at a job just because they're a woman or that women need to be given preferential treatment. Women are perfectly capable of cutting it in what is considered traditionally as a man's world--fields such as engineering. But I do acknowledge that it takes a concerted effort during childhood to get kids interested in maths and science and to overcome lingering ideas about work roles being gender-defined, and Denton was an important role model in that regard.

She had only just taken the UC Santa Cruz position in February 2005, and walked into a situation where the university and local community were at odds over development, where there was a brewing labour relations fracas with the cleaners union, and where a state-wide hounding of the pay and perks given UC administrators was very publicly under way.

An earlier focus of the attacks on UC was former Chancellor Berdahl of the Berkeley campus, who also was in the midst of a "town and gown" fracas over a downtown development, and also had had any local campus support cut away from him by a union dispute involving clerical workers by the time the allegations of his "perks" were made public.

[Here I must make my disclaimer: as a member of that clerical workers union at the time, I took major issue with the way in which it misrepresented the bargaining process to its members in order to get them to participate in a strike. I have no time for union organisers who just want to be able to write "successfully organised a strike" on their resume as they walk away to some other high-paid union bargaining job, leaving behind the low-paid workers they profess to care about out-of-pocket for their unpaid strike days. And without a pay raise.]

Events since the time of that strike--which took place prior to the newspaper revelations about administrators' pay and perks-- give me the impression that there is a concerted effort to destroy the pre-eminence of the University of California as the over-arching parent of some of the leading research universities in the world. That pre-eminence is no mean feat for a system that is publicly funded by taxpayers’ money in the same way that the "University of New Zealand" is with its campuses at Vic, Otago, Massey, etc.

Public funding is a stress point because you don't get the best teachers and researchers to work at a public university out of altruism. You get them by matching, if not bettering, what they're offered by universities financed by private endowments and gifts running in the billions of dollars. And the faculty who step over into administrative roles need to be recruited competitively as well.

UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice Denton was a professor of electrical engineering, former Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington (the state, not DC), and the 2006 recipient of the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award for advancing opportunities for women and girls in science. Denton's partner, Gretchen Kalonji, was also at UW and highly involved in "projects and organizations focusing on innovations in education, equity and access in higher education, and international science and engineering," according to the UC Office of the President press release at the time of her appointment, concurrent with that of Denton to UC Santa Cruz.

There may have been personal issues at work creating the final straw, but there can be no doubt that the stress of the media attacks on the UC system contributed to Denton's mindset at the time of her suicide.

The two SF Chronicle reporters who launched those attacks are both graduates of a well-respected journalism school at a privately funded university in Chicago, and won a Northern California Society of Professional Journalists award on March 16 this year for their investigative reporting into UC's administrative pay and perks.

Todd Wallack received all his tertiary education at Northwestern University, but Tanya Schevitz got her undergraduate degree in history at UC Berkeley before going to Northwestern's Medill graduate school of journalism.

I don't know what they teach at Medill about telling both sides of a story, but on a March 3, Friday-night current affairs programme here in California, Schevitz was still breathlessly beating up on former Berkeley Chancellor Berdahl without once acknowledging the press statements he had made in reply to the reporters' allegations that he was paid for teaching obligations in the history department that he never fulfilled during his transition out of his administrative role when a new Chancellor was appointed.

When public figures have to constantly struggle to get their side of a story heard because reporters and politicians are all over it for their own self-aggrandizement, it is little wonder that corporations and institutions have to pay so much to entice potential business and education leaders to be the target that the proverbial gets flung at.

For the University of California's press statement at the time of the appointment of Denton's partner see: http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/2005/jan26.html and click through to "more background".

For links to some of the stories Wallack and Schevitz wrote: http://thisweek.kqed.org/segments/1041/index.html

Santa Cruz coverage of Denton’s suicide: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/archive/2006/June/25/local/stories/02local.htm

**********

rosalea.barker@gmail.com

--REST IN PEACE--

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