Block on Board


By Mary Daily

Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM

He's a scientist, a scholar, a car lover and a leader. Meet UCLA's new chief executive up close and personal.

Gene David Block, UCLA's new chancellor, has always been fascinated with how things work and making them work better. As a teenager in tiny Monticello, N.Y., he helped his dad restore an MGA sports car using rebuilt parts. He collected radios and was dazzled by the switch from vacuum tubes to transistors.

As a Stanford undergraduate, he became fascinated with the study of animal behavior and, as a graduate student at the University of Oregon, discovered a lab focused on biological clocks. The brain's electrical time-keeping system captivated the guy who loved to tinker. So he embarked on a career in physiological psychology that would eventually earn him international renown.

Campus as Lab

Since 2001, as vice president and provost of the University of Virginia, Block has applied his mechanical mind — and his vision — to enabling the university to triumph over some tough issues and reach heights that were before unimagined.

"Things that seem impossible, he makes happen," says circadian biologist Carla Green of U.Va.

One way he does that is by bringing together a wide range of people, listening to their input and shepherding their visions toward reality.

He's willing to be "mentored from below," says Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Gertrude Fraser. "He'll say, 'You have the expertise; let me understand the issues.' "

Under Block's leadership, great strides have been made at U.Va., a public university known for comprehensive excellence, a top-rate undergraduate experience and opportunities for gifted graduate students. Block — who joined UCLA Aug. 1 — takes particular pride in advances in the sciences, faculty diversity, university-wide efforts to improve K-12 education and relationships with Native Americans.

Two Monticellos

But back to Monticello, N.Y. Block's father owned a small dairy distributorship that serviced hotels in the Catskills. When he got old enough, Block drove a delivery truck. In summers, during his college years, he went home to drive the truck and rediscovered a hometown girl, Carol Kullback, who was attending George Washington University. Today they have been married 37 years and have two adult children.

After Stanford, Block headed to the University of Oregon for graduate school and then back to Stanford as a postdoctoral fellow under Colin Pittendrigh, the "father of biological timing," and Donald Kennedy, future president of Stanford.

In the last year of the fellowship, Block answered U.Va.'s ad for a biologist and got the job. So the son of the milkman from Monticello was off to the university that sits in the shadow of the other Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, who founded U.Va. in 1819.

And there Block stayed for almost 30 years, through a trajectory from assistant professor to vice president for research and public service to vice president and provost. He also served as founding director of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Center in Biological Timing; and director of the Biodynamics Institute and of an NIH training grant for underrepresented students. And when immersed in grant writing, he continued to take breaks to surf eBay for old radios.

Block has left his mark all across the Virginia campus. Although the sciences had historically been "the poor cousin" to humanities there, says Green, Block "got the Board of Visitors so excited that they dedicated the money to hire star scientists and build labs."

As provost, Block, along with Robert Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs, established the "University Envision" initiative, in which they met with deans and directors of institutes and centers to consider how each school's long-term goals would help shape the vision for U.Va.'s third century.

One emerging idea was the need to train public leaders. So Block appointed a committee to explore the notion, resulting in the creation of a five-year bachelor's/master's degree in public policy. But he didn't stop there. He shepherded a dream of a professional school. He asked Board of Visitors member John O. Wynne to accompany him and a faculty member on a visit to UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy.

"Gene had the academic vision for the new school," Wynne says, "and presented it in just the right way." In two meetings with Wynne and a prospective donor, Block instilled confidence in the vision. "He understood the donor's needs and was ready to answer his questions," Wynne says. In April 2007, U.Va. announced its largest-ever gift — $100 million for a school of leadership and public policy.

"Increasingly, alumni and friends of the university are key to the creation of significant new opportunities for students and faculty," Block says. "It is remarkable how committed and generous our supporters have been at U.Va., and I see that the same is true for UCLA."

Last spring, in coordination with the faculty senate, Block hosted a series of dinners for faculty and development officers to brainstorm about ideas that could take U.Va. to greater heights and prompt greater levels of philanthropy. "Through Gene's leadership, faculty from the schools took a universitywide view," says Sweeney.

Community Engagement

Because Block believes that public universities' civic engagement should be "sculpted to the needs of communities," U.Va. has focused on developing K-12 teacher-preparation programs of measurable benefit to children. In 2002, the university received one of the first grants from the Carnegie Corporation's Teachers for a New Era initiative, which supports training and research focused on real-world classrooms, in partnership with local school districts. Block was a principal investigator.