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 on Aug. 1 — takes particular pride in advances in the sciences, faculty diversity, universitywide efforts to improve K12 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 K12 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.

Talent and Trust

“Gene loves new ideas,” says Marcia Childress, past faculty senate chair at U.Va. “He has a sense of adventure that comes out of his scientific training.”

This is reflected in a number of Block’s appointments that weren’t typical choices. He “taps expertise wherever he finds it,” says Leigh Grossman, a medical faculty member whom Block named vice provost of international affairs.

Block says he tries to surround himself with people who are willing to be bold and who demonstrate high integrity.

To address U.Va.’s faculty diversity issues, Block lured Fraser from the Ford Foundation to be vice provost for faculty advancement. “We examined the university’s recruitment process,” she says. “We looked at what draws someone to U.Va. and what opportunities we weren’t pursuing. Gene gave us the resources and interviewed candidates himself. He made the deans our partners in recruitment and held them accountable, without taking a baseball bat to anybody. They trusted him.”

One result was the Excellence in Diversity Program, funded by Block’s office and by the National Science Foundation, to help primarily underrepresented junior faculty develop lengthy careers at U.Va. Another was online faculty training on recruiting diverse applicant pools and serving on search committees.

The efforts succeeded in “getting more people to yes,” Fraser says. Since 2003, the yield rate for African-American candidates who are offered jobs has jumped from 31 percent to 88 percent and, for Hispanic candidates, from 33 percent to 60 percent.

An Honest Broker

When issues demand tough, unpopular decisions, Block holds fast to what’s best for the university, says faculty senate chair Ken Schwartz. “And he does it with clarity of purpose, grace and good humor.”

In 2002, U.Va. joined Arizona’s Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) project, to be built on land that Native Americans claimed was sacred. “We had to weigh the concerns expressed by Native Americans with our scientific interest in the most powerful telescope ever built,” Block says.

Block and his colleagues at Virginia helped focus the consortium’s attention on Native American issues on Arizona reservations. In Virginia, Block reached out to local tribes on whose ancestral land the U.Va. campus sits. He worked with Virginia Tech to ensure that funding was available for the annual Virginia Indian Nations Summit on Higher Education.

“Gene seemed genuine in asking what U.Va. could do for us,” says Karenne Wood, a Monacan Indian and former chair of the tribal council.

People who know Block say he’s inclusive, evenhanded, incredibly honest, direct and patient, and they consistently mention his intellect, warmth, optimism and humility.

Always a Teacher

Throughout his years in administration, Block has continued teaching and research. “It’s important [for a leader] to stay close to the university’s core missions,” he says. At UCLA he will hold faculty appointments in physiological sciences and psychiatry, and his NIH-funded research will continue.

“He has not forgotten life in the trenches,” Green says. “He understands what faculty deal with. And students love him; he makes difficult concepts simple.”

For the past four years, Block has essentially lived with students. In 2003, he and Carol moved into one of 10 pavilions in Jefferson’s “Academical Village,” in the heart of campus. His two-story, red-brick residence, facing a lush green, is flanked by single-room quarters for students. Porches sport rocking chairs and firewood, and brass name plates identify residents. As Jefferson envisioned, faculty and students interact 24/7.

“He is the ultimate multitasker, incredibly energetic and absurdly hardworking,” says Public Policy Professor Eric Patashnik. “He never seems to get tired.”

Yet he exhibits “an extraordinary generosity of engagement and gives you his undivided attention,” says English Professor Victor Luftig, who has found working with Block a primary perk of U.Va.

Looking West

Block’s excitement about UCLA is readily apparent when he talks about the “smart, dedicated and very professional people” he sees here. As chancellor, he plans to focus initially on three areas: the university’s relationship to Los Angeles; the diversity of students, faculty and staff; and academic excellence.

For a long time, Block thought that if he were called to head a university, it would be a “fixer-upper,” a place that needed lots of help, maybe a restoration. So he’s all the more delighted and invigorated to be offered a premier institution like UCLA. After all, the last car he worked on wasn’t a clunker. It was a Porsche 911.

Change at the Top

Leading a major university has never been a walk in the park. But today it’s more complex than ever, and the pressure to succeed is immense. This may be one of the toughest jobs in the world — but those who’ve done it wouldn’t have it any other way.

CEO, spokesperson, fund-raiser, lobbyist, crisis manager, advocate, academic officer, visionary: A university chancellor is all of these, and more.

Running a university has always been demanding. Although the responsibilities have remained the same over time, today the job is far more complex and the pressure to succeed far more intense. The institutions are more complex than ever, thanks to technology and the sheer number of people seeking a college education. Campuses are more diverse, broadening the range of student and faculty needs. And higher education is competitive, with many institutions recruiting the same top faculty and outstanding students.

And there’s ever greater scrutiny. Traditionally, chancellors have been critiqued by students, faculty, staff, alumni, oversight boards, members of the community and, in the public institutions, taxpayers. Now there’s 24-hour news coverage, digital media and instant worldwide communication as well.

Meanwhile, scandals in the corporate world have yielded greater emphasis on institutional accountability and transparency. “There are higher expectations of performance for [universities], which compounds the pressures on the presidency,” says Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB).

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and this spring’s shootings at Virginia Tech, university heads were in the media spotlight, their actions publicly critiqued. Those tragedies were jolting reminders that leaders are expected to steer their institutions through major catastrophes with steady hands and the right mix of confidence and empathy. And in emergencies, they must act swiftly — not the typical pace of academia.

In addition, the magnitude of university budgets today (UCLA’s operating budget for 20062007 was $3.6 billion) and, for public institutions, dwindling state support (less than 15 percent of UCLA’s budget comes from the state) force a strong emphasis on fund-raising. A survey of more than 750 presidents of four-year institutions by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that more than half spend time every day on fund-raising and more than 90 percent work on it weekly.

Some might assume, then, that they have less time to devote to academics. But the job isn’t so compartmentalized, says Albert Carnesale, UCLA’s chancellor from 1997 to 2006. “The chancellor’s primary role in fund-raising is to set forth an academic vision and identify what must be accomplished to realize it. This focus on academic priorities, I believe, is the most effective and efficient use of the chancellor’s time in the fund-raising effort.”

A 2006 AGB report acknowledged the benefits of focusing more on academic leadership, but Legon says, “The overwhelming corporate challenges confronting institutions become the critical drivers of skill sets that boards seek.”

The Chronicle survey showed that the basic issues on the minds of chancellors and presidents include salaries, diversity, tuition, student needs and rising health-care and technology costs. These are often augmented by the challenges of societal issues. Charles E. Young, UCLA chancellor from 1968 to 1997, remembers being faced with a series of such issues, including campus unrest caused by the civil rights movement and Vietnam, the UC’s investments in South Africa, and a hunger strike in support of the establishment of a Chicano Studies Department.

And yet, the Chronicle found that 94 percent of chancellors say they’d do it all over again. “People who haven’t done it don’t understand it,” Young says. “But there is no more important work in the world.” — Mary Daily and Sean Brenner