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Campus leaders reflect on Denice Denton's life

Current and former faculty, staff and administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reflected today on the life and career of Denice D. Denton, a former faculty member here. Denton, who was chancellor of the University of California-Santa Cruz, died Saturday, victim of an apparent suicide.

“We are deeply saddened by the unexpected death of Denice Denton,” says UW-Madison Chancellor John D. Wiley. “Denice began her academic career here — in my home department of engineering. She was a star at Wisconsin and went on to become the first woman to lead an engineering school in the United States (University of Washington, Seattle). She proved herself to be an administrator and scholar of the highest caliber.”

“Her contributions to the UW-Madison were extraordinary and her positive influence on public higher education extended far beyond the campuses where she served,” Wiley says. “We extend our sincere condolences to her family, friends and loved ones.”

UW-Madison was home to Denton as she began her teaching career after earning three degrees (bachelor's, master's and doctorate) in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Beginning with UW-Madison in 1987, she was the only woman in the department of electrical and computer engineering and one of very few women in the College of Engineering.

She mentored and encouraged many other female assistant professors and staff in the engineering and science disciplines. For example, in 1994, Denton helped Susan Millar establish the Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation, and Dissemination (LEAD) Center, and set expectations throughout her career that projects be informed by evaluation findings.

Denton took a multidisciplinary approach to both research and education, and sought to integrate them. She made pioneering contributions in numerous departments and programs and co-led several successful grants for major projects designed to improve science and math education.

She co-directed the College of Engineering's Manufacturing Engineering Education for the Future grant and founded the National Institute for Science Education, which was housed in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). This institute was a collaborative effort of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the School of Education, the College of Engineering, and the College of Letters and Science.

“Denice was an extraordinarily creative, courageous, and effective leader,” says Susan Millar, now a senior scientist at WCER. “She would deal with complex situations by first consulting and engaging the right people to help clarify the problem and then thinking through the solutions that went right to the heart of the matter. She thought outside the box and acted to bring the best solution for a broad group.”

“Denice was an extremely popular and effective teacher,” says Phil Certain, former dean of the College of Letters and Science. “She was a frequent volunteer, speaking to grade school and high school classes around the state and serving as a role model for women in science and engineering.”

“Denice was a towering force in science, education, and social justice,” says Jo Handelsman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor in the UW-Madison department of plant pathology. “She was a terrific scientist, an innovative educator, and fierce advocate for women and minorities in higher education. Her passion and tireless work on every educational agenda she embraced made her emblematic of the best and purest aspects of higher education. We will miss her enormously.”

Denton won many teaching and research awards while at UW-Madison, including the Benjamin Smith Reynolds Award for excellence in teaching in 1994 and the first Harriett B. Rigas Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1995. The Rigas Award was given annually to a woman faculty engineer who made significant contributions to undergraduate education. Denton was cited as “an exceptionally innovative instructor, noted for her teaching techniques, enhancing local and national engineering education and relating to real-world problems.”

Other awards included the National Science Foundation's Presidential Young Investigator Award (1987-92), the Kiekhofer Distinguished Teaching Award (1990), the American Society of Engineering Education AT&T Foundation Teaching Award (1991), the Eta Kappa Nu C. Holmes MacDonald Distinguished Young Electrical Engineering Teaching Award (1993), the W.M. Keck Foundation Engineering Teaching Excellence Award (1994), and the ASEE George Westinghouse Award (1995).

“This is a human and institutional tragedy,” says Terry Millar, UW-Madison professor of mathematics, associate dean of the Graduate School and colleague of Denton's. “Denice had so very much to offer, evidenced by her meaningful contributions during her short life. She constantly acted on her great insight, enthusiasm and passion for her work and for making the world better for others. We all must pick up where she left off.”

She leaves many close friends and admirers on this campus. Those wishing to contribute to a scholarship in her name, recognizing women in science and engineering, can do so by contacting the University of Wisconsin Foundation from the Denice D. Denton Memorial Scholarship Fund webpage.