Laurel L. Wilkening, an expert on planetary science who is second-in-command at the University of Washington in Seattle, will be named today as chancellor of UC Irvine, UC officials said.
Wilkening, 48, would become the third chancellor in the history of the 28-year-old Orange County campus, succeeding Jack W. Peltason, who took the helm as University of California system president last October.
The appointment of Wilkening by UC regents will bring the number of female chancellors in the nine-campus system to two. Since the death last year of UC Riverside Chancellor Rosemary S. J. Schraer, the only woman heading a UC campus has been Barbara S. Uehling at Santa Barbara.
Peltason and UC Regents Chairman Meredith Khachigian declined comment on Wilkening's appointment. The formal action was slated during a closed-door session this morning at UCLA.
"It's a done deal," said a high-ranking UC administrator who has seen the proposed UC contract for Wilkening.
Wilkening did not return calls seeking comment.
A geological chemist who did groundbreaking research on asteroids in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wilkening recently won national attention for her service on a federal commission to study the future of the U.S. space program, in turmoil over flaws in the multibillion-dollar space shuttle fleet and the Hubble Space Telescope.
In academia, she is one of the top-ranked women university administrators in the country and has long been considered a top prospect to become a university president or chancellor. She reportedly was a finalist to become president of University of Texas at Austin last fall.
"She is one of the most promising young people I know of in this generation," said Henry Koffler, president emeritus of the University of Arizona, where Wilkening rose from assistant professor to vice president and dean of the college of research in 12 years. "She is one of the most qualified women I know, in fact, one of the most qualified persons, man or woman, in the United States in any field, anywhere."
"She's a woman on a fairly fast-track career," added Thomas J. Linney, vice president of the Council of Graduate Schools, a national organization based in Washington, D.C. "She's very visible nationally and by all accounts is a very able administrator. . . . You need to replace Jack Peltason with someone up-and-coming, and she would be a very good choice."
Added an official at the Assn. of American Universities, who asked not to be named: "Everyone always thought it was just a matter of time before she landed a presidency or chancellorship."
No announcement of Wilkening's imminent appointment had been made Thursday at the University of Washington. But colleagues there said they knew she was destined for bigger things.
"She is a shining star of this university," said Bruce Margon, chairman of the university's astronomy department, where Wilkening has a faculty post. "Even our president has said it's only a matter of time before we come under attack."
At the University of Washington, where she has been provost since 1988, Wilkening is the chief operating officer of a campus of 34,600 students. The university has a large program in federally funded biomedical research, as well as a prestigious hospital.
Her experience there is thought to make her an excellent match for the 17,000-student UC Irvine, which in recent years has become nationally recognized as one of the emerging top centers of biological and neurological research. Irvine also has a college of medicine and a hospital that has only recently been able to reverse a red tide of deficits because it is the county's main provider of health care for the indigent.
In addition, the University of Washington has pioneered joint research projects with private industry, arrangements that UC Irvine also is seeking to expand with a proposed Center for Health Sciences, which would work with and be partially funded by development of an adjacent industrial park.
"Irvine is similarly positioned in having a medical school and reaching out to private industry," said Linney, of the graduate schools council. "If you are looking for someone with experience in those areas, then someone from University of Washington makes sense."
In Seattle, Wilkening's boss is William Gerberding, a former executive vice chancellor at UCLA who was mentioned last year as a possible candidate for the UC system presidency that Peltason now holds.
Wilkening is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Reed College in Portland, Ore., and earned a doctorate in chemistry at UC San Diego in 1970. During her UC years, she also was a UC Regents Fellow and a NASA trainee.
As a young planetary scientist, Wilkening made her mark studying meteorites and the effects of cosmic rays on such bodies in space. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she developed evidence to prove that asteroids circulating in the region between Mars and Jupiter collide and mix frequently, said Michael Drake, a professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona.