Laurel Wilkening, third UCI chancellor and noted planetary scientist, dies at 74

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Irvine, Calif., June 7, 2019 — Laurel L. Wilkening studied comets and moon rocks, influenced U.S. space policy and led the University of California, Irvine for five years as its third chancellor, from 1993 to 1998. The renowned planetary scientist died June 4 at the age of 74.

Raised in New Mexico, Wilkening hitched her wagon to the stars early on, carving up a lunar rock in grad school, serving as vice chair of the National Commission on Space under President Ronald Reagan, editing a textbook on comets and running a prestigious planetary laboratory.

In 1993, after leadership posts at the University of Arizona and the University of Washington, Wilkening came to UCI as its third chancellor, as well as the third female chancellor in University of California history.

“Laurel Wilkening will be remembered for her courage and integrity in the face of challenging times. She set the campus on an upward trajectory that is still benefiting us today,” said Chancellor Howard Gillman.

During Wilkening’s five-year tenure, UCI received its first two Nobel Prizes (prompting her to throw a spontaneous champagne breakfast); contributed more than $1 billion per year to the local economy; completed 250,000 square feet of construction; and increased private, state and federal funding.

“She was a terrific leader who set clear priorities to build and expand research programs throughout the university,” said Sidney Golub, who served as Wilkening’s executive vice chancellor before returning to teaching and research in the School of Medicine.

She was also “a very dedicated teacher” who regularly taught a freshman seminar and required other top executives to do the same, Golub said. For a time, the chancellor’s conference room was “decorated with solar system models from her class,” he recalled. “She felt strongly that leadership needed to be involved in the community and the classroom.”

Wilkening’s goal to move UCI into the ranks of America’s top 50 research universities was realized in 1995. A year later, the campus was invited to join the prestigious Association of American Universities. Wilkening was also instrumental in creating University Research Park, which became a national model for collaboration between the private sector and university researchers.

After retiring in 1998, Wilkening returned to Arizona, where her husband (who died in 2007) operated a vineyard near Tucson. She remained active as a board member for the Planetary Society, the University of Arizona Commission on the Status of Women, and various environmental groups.

In 2005, her successor at UCI, Chancellor Ralph Cicerone, dedicated the Laurel L. Wilkening Rose Garden in front of the Irvine Barclay Theatre in her honor. Four years later, she received the UCI Medal, which recognizes exceptional contributions to the university’s mission of teaching, research and public service.

In 2013, an asteroid discovered by NASA-funded astronomers at the University of Arizona was officially named Wilkening.

Born in 1944 in Richland, Washington, and raised in Socorro, New Mexico, Wilkening developed an interest in science that was influenced, in part, by her father, who worked on the first atomic bomb and later taught college physics. As a youngster, she loved bird-watching, hiking and flying her family’s small plane, according to news reports.

At Reed College in Oregon, Wilkening earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1966, followed by a Ph.D. in 1970 at UC San Diego, where she examined the first lunar rock released from quarantine after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Known for her sharp intellect, playful sense of humor and direct manner, Wilkening began her academic and administrative careers at the University of Arizona, where she initially taught cosmochemistry and planetary science. There, she met her future husband, Godfrey Sill, a Carmelite friar working on his doctorate. Wilkening later directed the university’s Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, then served as the school’s vice president for research.

In 1988, she moved to the University of Washington in Seattle, where she was provost and vice president for academic affairs before heading to UCI in 1993.

Upon her retirement, then-UC President Richard Atkinson lauded Wilkening as a “brilliant scientist and extraordinary administrator … (who) has infused the campus with her intellectual vigor and bold imagination and has taken UCI to new heights of national recognition for its impressive growth in academic quality.”

Wilkening is survived by her brother and sister-in-law, Wes and Mary Wilkening; her niece, Whitney Wilkening; and her nephew, Ron Douglas.

Services will be held at 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 12, at Carrillo’s Mortuary, 204 S. Stone Ave., Tucson, AZ 85701, with a reception to follow. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association, at https://www.alz.org. 

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 36,000 students and offers 222 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

Media access: Radio programs/stations may, for a fee, use an on-campus ISDN line to interview UCI faculty and experts, subject to availability and university approval. For more UCI news, visit news.uci.edu. Additional resources for journalists may be found at communications.uci.edu/for-journalists.