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Yes, Virginia, he's coming to lead UCLA

Gene Block is leaving horse country for freeway central. `It's time,' the biological clock researcher says.

June 24, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Both the University of Virginia and its provost, Gene D. Block, exude stability.

The 182-year-old campus founded and designed by Thomas Jefferson is a glory of Early Americana in brick, white columns and flowering dogwoods. Administrators sometimes speak of "Mr. Jefferson" as if he might inspect the library tomorrow, and the restored 1820s dorm room of Edgar Allan Poe is on display.

The school has been Block's only employer since he took his first job here as an assistant professor of biology 29 years ago. He has been married to the same woman, Carol, for 37 years, and for decades he has researched the same general topic: biological clocks.

But now, the alarm clock is ringing for change in Block's life. At 58, he is moving across three time zones for a new, very big job. On Aug. 1 he is scheduled to become chancellor of UCLA, which is about a century younger and has about twice as many students as the University of Virginia's 19,000.

"It's time. It's time to move," said Block, a white-haired man who, despite his time in the South, retains a slight New York accent from his childhood as the son of a dairy products distributor in the Catskills region.

Block has been second-in-command for six years at Virginia, where he pushed for improving sciences on a campus known for humanities and worked for greater ethnic and gender diversity among the faculty and students. He always thought that if he left Charlottesville, he would head a smaller institution, "a fixer-upper."

But at UCLA, a plan collapsed last year to hire a Syracuse University administrator to succeed Chancellor Albert Carnesale, the highly successful fundraiser who led the school in a low-key manner for nine years. Then the university began to court Block. The school's strong emphasis on science and engineering appealed to him, as did its Asian ties and Pacific Rim location in a city with about 100 times Charlottesville's 41,000 population.

"UCLA is a very successful, mature university. But you don't want to just maintain it; you want to make it better," he said during an interview in Charlottesville.

Although he has visited Westwood frequently since his appointment in December, he said it was too soon to plan specifics. But he spoke of wanting to better connect the campus with the city, create more small classes for undergraduates, help young faculty members afford housing and improve diversity without violating the state's ban on affirmative action.

He also knows that a big part of his job will be raising funds, such as the recent $100-million gift he helped land for a new school of leadership and public policy at Virginia.

UCLA deans want their divisions "to move ahead and attract the best faculty and students," he said. One way to achieve that is "working my tail off to help them raise money."

But can Block switch from Virginia horse country and Southern courtesy to life amid Wilshire Boulevard high-rises and L.A.'s fractious politics?

He says he is prepared. In fact, Block proudly -- and somewhat comically -- shows a visitor that he has programmed his car radio to satellite channel reports of L.A. traffic jams, bizarre bulletins to hear in central Virginia.

"I'm not worried. I'm really not," he said of the shift. "Part of it is my background. I came out of an environment that was New Yorkish. It wasn't New York City, but it was New Yorkish, pretty intense, pretty in-your-face. Much more blunt than what I'm dealing with now. So this is not foreign to me. People in L.A., some of them, are more direct than they are in Virginia. And I kind of like that style."

Despite their differences, UCLA and Virginia have similarities. Both are state institutions with high admissions standards, fiercely proud alumni, vaunted athletic programs and important hospitals and law schools. They hold nearly identical spots in U.S. News & World Report's ranking of national universities. (Virginia tied for 24th with the University of Michigan, and UCLA came next.)

Block also stressed that his West Coast credentials began with childhood visits to relatives in Santa Monica and continued into his college days.

The grandson of Eastern European immigrants, Block grew up in Monticello, a racetrack town about 70 miles northwest of New York that catered mainly to Jewish families on Borscht Belt vacations. As a teenager, he worked for his father during summers, delivering milk and yogurt to hotels and bungalow colonies. His mother was a nurse.

Block describes himself as a science nerd but not a top high school student. In an admission that will hearten many teens, he said he was unfocused and had a rocky start in college.

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