He is, in many ways, just what he appears to be: steady, professorial, a thinker. He makes decisions carefully and deliberately, weighing every angle, every possibility, with the gravitas of Solomon. He has other, less obvious qualities too, including a gentle humility and a keen sense of humor that his colleagues have found equally surprising and endearing. In the end, he has been what UCLA has needed him to be: a leader, a visionary, a steady presence guiding a university that was already on the ascent when he took office in 2007 to even greater heights.
When he steps down next July, Chancellor Gene Block will leave an indelible legacy.
In over a decade and a half at the helm, he has steered UCLA through financial shoals and a triumphant centennial celebration; achieved high water marks in research funding, applications, enrollment, fundraising and community service; championed diversity and educational access; brought UCLA to the top of the national rankings; and overseen significant physical growth — including the largest land acquisition since UCLA moved from Vermont Avenue to Westwood nearly a hundred years ago.
Leading Through a Historic Pandemic
Leadership tests come in all shapes and sizes, and during his tenure, the chancellor has certainly seen his share, perhaps none greater than COVID-19, which in March 2020 shut down the campus and the country almost overnight. A furious flurry of work followed: committees formed, data studied, projections monitored, policies enacted. The pandemic asked the question every leader must face in crisis: Do you have what it takes to rise to this occasion?
Block boiled the mission down to its essence: protecting the UCLA community. That meant the students, faculty, staff, everyone with a touchpoint within the Bruin community. As he forged a path forward, he made an audacious pledge: No matter what, no UCLA employee was going to lose their job. With many universities forced to cut budgets, it wasn’t a universally supported stance among the leadership team.
Journey through an in-depth timeline of the Chancellor’s storied tenure
“Gene was adamant that we were going to do what was right for the employees,” remembers Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck.
And the chancellor persisted “despite the fact that we knew we were going to take a huge financial hit,” recalls Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt, who was then dean of social sciences. In the end, Hunt says, it was the chancellor’s “relentless appeal to core values of what UCLA is, what UCLA stands for” — and his vision of the entire Bruin community as a single team — that won the day. “He was able to build consensus around that idea.”
Some staff without ample regular work were retrained for different duties; others served new populations outside of UCLA. Culinary staff fed veterans at the West L.A. VA since so many students were missing from dining halls. “It was the right decision ethically, but then it turned out to be the right decision practically,” Block says today. “When we came back to the full operation, we needed everyone.”
In September 2021, after 18 months of remote instruction and uncertainty, the campus reopened. Westwood bubbled with energy; thousands of undergraduates, hopes high, swarmed Bruin Plaza.
Gene Block stood beside The Bruin statue, masked but clearly beaming and flanked by members of the marching band — the paterfamilias welcoming his flock back home. “I’ve been waiting for a long time for this day,” he said.
Then he led the students in an eight-clap.
A New Era
With his trademark shock of snow-white hair and courtly presence, Block has remained very much the quiet man of purpose he was when he arrived from the University of Virginia in 2007 — if, perhaps, a little less quiet.
Being provost of Virginia’s flagship institution in the small town of Charlottesville was one thing, Block recalls, but serving as the public face of one of the world’s great public research universities in the nation’s second-largest city just wasn’t a natural part of his personality. “I don’t look for attention, I truly don’t,” Block says today. “But it’s just part of the job you have to recognize. I’m certainly more comfortable with it now.”
He also had to readjust his natural inclination to absorb everything, visit every building on campus, learn about every issue. (“It really was drinking from the firehose,” he laughs.) But that realization helped him refine his approach to leadership. “You have to hire really good people, trust them with their areas and not get involved in micromanaging.”
“He looks for expertise,” says his chief of staff, Yolanda Gorman. “I think he looks for confidence. I think he looks for people who are collaborative, not someone who does their own thing in their own corner.”
It didn’t take long for the campus to become familiar with that new management style: collaborative but decisive; empathetic but clear-eyed about the mission at hand; rooted in analytics, but always keeping in mind the human factor.
And when it came to that human factor, he was ambitious. He understood that UCLA was not merely an institution of higher learning but a complex, multilayered research university that had its own unique moral compass and an obligation to use its resources to tackle the most pressing issues of the day and improve the lives of those in Los Angeles, the nation and the world.
“He champions UCLA as a public university,” says Scott Waugh, who served as vice chancellor and provost from 2006 to 2019. “UCLA is representative of the community, and Gene worked to strengthen ties with community organizations, and worked to be a good partner. He was very firm about that.”
The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes. During Block’s tenure, UCLA launched Volunteer Day, increased the number and scope of its community partnerships, established K–12 schools with the Los Angeles Unified School District, boosted outreach efforts to underrepresented students in the face of the challenge wrought by the passage of California’s Proposition 209 and increased access and affordability, among dozens of other initiatives.
The Chancellor as Scientist
A scientist — a neurobiologist to be precise — Block has made a particular effort to connect research to the greater good. That spirit of service has been embodied in two “Grand Challenges,” an idea that Block says started with faculty. The first, Sustainable LA, focuses on making Los Angeles into a model green megacity; the second, the Depression Grand Challenge, seeks to understand, prevent and treat depression — and reduce its global health and economic impacts by half by 2050.
Both are clear examples of the types of fearless, ambitious projects Block has tackled at UCLA.
If an issue was daunting, troubling and seemingly intractable, Block wanted to tap into the university’s vast talent and brain power to find solutions. Nelson Freimer, the psychiatry professor who directs the Depression Grand Challenge, says Block “played a really instrumental role in making sure that it would be not just an academic pursuit, that it would have tangible societal benefits.”
The work Block has done to champion academic inquiry and improve research infrastructure has made UCLA a powerhouse of discovery; since he joined the campus in 2007, the amount of research funding UCLA academics have brought in — a marker of research activity — has nearly doubled from $914 million to $1.7 billion. Block also pushed substantial efforts to commercialize that research, allowing faculty to bring their discoveries to market.
The ‘Chancellor of Students’
The image of the distinguished university head sitting in their baronial office, nodding gravely, is an old one. While Block certainly has many of the archetypal traits one associates with the role — he is genial, studious, professorial — he was also determined not just to lead UCLA, but to be of it as well. Foraying out onto campus regularly, he became part of the hive of energy that is life in Westwood. That had results he couldn’t have foreseen: It brought him out of his shell, and it connected him to the community and to the students in an incredibly meaningful way. Taking a selfie with the chancellor became, well, sort of a thing.
“I don’t get it,” he says today, chuckling. “Maybe five years ago, I started noticing that people would walk up a little bit uncomfortably and say, ‘Could I take a picture?’ And then it kind of turned into tsunami of people doing that in the last few years. And I’m more than willing to do it. It’s fun. I mean, these are our students, and it’s all for the right reasons.”
As one would expect on a wide campus of varying viewpoints, not every interaction with students has been easy. “He was pushed from different directions,” Waugh recalls. “The question for him was always, ‘How can we act in a way that does justice to the people involved while maintaining the integrity of the university?’”
D’Artagnan Scorza ’07, Ph.D. ’13, for one, applauds Block’s commitment to social justice. “He’s been on the right side of history when it comes to standing up for what’s right,” says Scorza, the immediate past president of the UCLA Alumni Association and founder of the Social Justice Learning Institute. “For standing up against antisemitism, standing up for LGBT+ rights, standing against anti-Asian hate and bias, and in support of addressing anti-Blackness.”
Block also established UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and launched initiatives to promote faculty diversity, Black life on campus, and become a federally recognized Hispanic-Serving Institution.
It’s a reflection of not just how the chancellor leads but of who he is at his core. “This is a man that just has incredible integrity,” says Gorman. “He has a real passion and commitment for the campus, for the students, for the faculty and staff.” It is, she says, “the underpinning of who he is.”
More than anything, Block has made the richness of the student experience paramount — from the classes students are taught, to the residences in which they live, the food they eat and the resources they can access. The chancellor is a familiar sight on the Hill, breakfasting with student groups and handing out cookies during finals. He devotes hours to move-in days, welcoming in the new class and chatting with their parents. Last year, after a decade of construction of new residence halls and apartments, UCLA became the first and only University of California campus to guarantee four years of housing to freshmen and two years to transfer students.
Indeed, UCLA’s physical expansion may prove to be one of the most important legacies of the Block era. While previous additions have clustered around the campus, the latest ones — UCLA South Bay and UCLA Downtown, along with UCLA Health’s Mid-Wilshire neuropsychiatric hospital — represent a new stage in the effort to broaden access to UCLA education and resources, and to strengthen the campus’s engagement with the Los Angeles region’s diverse and dynamic communities.
That has been complemented by Block’s tireless efforts to expand UCLA’s international presence, including building relations with universities and alumni in Asia, Europe and elsewhere across the globe. Block says he thinks that is where the job of chancellor has changed. “I’ve done, I think, a really effective job of engaging with alumni,” he says of his frequent trips to China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Europe. “I recognize we’re a global community, and I’m trying to keep us all together.”
The Road Ahead
In an impressive tenure, Gene Block has brought integrity, drive, vision and a sense of fairness and community to the imposing task of serving as chancellor of UCLA. He’s also brought something else that doesn’t get talked about a lot: a devilish wit.
“He has a hilarious sense of humor,” says Hunt, who’s seen the chancellor deploy it with groups of faculty, alumni and donors, but perhaps most effectively with his own leadership team. “When it seems like the world is coming to an end, sometimes you have to have a sense of humor about those things, about the bigger questions, so that you can think outside the box and be open to solutions.”
Block will need that sense of humor as he and his wife Carol tackle their own grand challenge, something they haven’t had to do since moving into the chancellor’s residence at UCLA: house hunting.
Wherever that new home turns out to be, Block will still be on campus, still part of the thriving, thrumming energy he’s helped manifest and harness since he arrived. A faculty member in addition to chancellor, since 2010 he’s shared a research laboratory with Christopher Colwell, a neuroscientist on the faculty of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Typical of the humble leader he is, Block says he hasn’t spent significant time in the lab for the past 15 years. Colwell says that isn’t so. The Block–Colwell research team has, after all, published 20 journal articles, most focused on the body’s biological clock, or circadian rhythm. “And he’s been on more than a dozen UCLA graduate student thesis committees,” Colwell says. “He always makes really useful, insightful contributions to the students’ research projects.”
It’s no wonder his assistant, Rena Torres, refers to the chancellor, now 75, as “super-energetic.” Nothing, she says, seems to slow him down. “He is truly his own circadian rhythm experiment.”
He’s not done, either. UCLA will continue to benefit from the wisdom and passion of the man who has shepherded it through the better part of the last two decades.
“I think he has really just catapulted us into the stratosphere as a public university,” says Gorman, summing up the sentiments of many. “He’s leaving us a jewel.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.