For the past 15 years, Carol Block, the wife of Chancellor Gene Block, has worked tirelessly to help foster a sense of community at UCLA and to advance the university’s interests locally and around the globe.
In her official position as associate of the chancellor, she plays a special role on campus, and she has approached her responsibilities with gusto, running a series of leadership luncheons for women staff and faculty, organizing student music recitals, supporting health and community service initiatives, and planning and hosting a wide variety of events for UCLA’s staff.
Block recently took some time to discuss the women who have inspired her, reflect on her time at UCLA and share her perspective on the importance of women’s voices in leadership.
During childhood, who among the women you knew was the most influential?
My mother had the greatest impact on me. She grew up in a poor, single-parent household. Her mother had immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century, was illiterate and didn’t speak English. And when my mother was 5 years old, her father passed away.
In spite of those challenges, in the 1930s, my mother managed to complete high school and attend college as a chemistry major with the goal of going to medical school. She didn’t have the resources to follow that dream but ended up working as a medical technologist in a laboratory and later in the office of a local family physician. She also worked as a high school substitute teacher. Gene and I grew up in the same town, and he actually remembers having her teach classes! She was very strict — a real sergeant.
When I take a moment to look back on everything she accomplished, it was pretty phenomenal.
What lessons did you learn from your mother?
Like many who grew up during the Great Depression, my mother was always very frugal. I remember finding a stash of money in the closet when we were cleaning out her house after she passed away. She was probably saving it for a rainy day. She and my father both saved a lot of things. My father was an accountant, and he would even tie knots in rubber bands if they broke and reuse them.
But more than frugality, she and my father taught us the value of appreciating everything you have and not taking it for granted. Gene and I instilled that in our children too. You have to work hard for what you want.
Could you talk about the Women’s Leadership Luncheons you launched at UCLA and how they got started?
The Women’s Leadership Luncheons started in 2008, about a year after Gene became chancellor. I’ve been hosting them ever since, except for a couple of years during the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea was suggested to me by a staff member in the chancellor’s office. We started by inviting women staff members in leadership positions to hear from a speaker and engage in a question-and-answer session, followed by a lunch. Since I didn’t know very many people at that time, I convinced my husband to be our first speaker.
Participants began expressing a desire to meet their peers in faculty leadership positions. So we started inviting faculty as well, and now we have about 25 to 30 women who attend each lunch. People look forward to it, and there have been some great connections as people meet colleagues with similar interests. Given the size of UCLA, I don’t think I’ll ever run out of people to invite.
The speakers are always someone I know. At our next luncheon in April, our speaker will be Alicia Miñana de Lovelace, an outstanding leader in the legal profession.
In addition to these luncheons, what other programs and activities do you lead at UCLA?
There are three other activities that I lead: student recitals with invited staff as audience, exhibiting student art at the chancellor’s residence, and attending women’s athletic events with staff members.
The recitals have been my favorite program because I played the piano for many years and I love music. Incidentally, as a child, my piano teacher was another woman who had a profound impact on me. She was always very supportive and kind and didn’t expect me to be perfect. She taught me the basics and I advanced from there. She helped me develop my love of classical music, and even back then you could see how much joy it brought me.
So I jumped right in with the music department when we arrived at UCLA, and we started doing student recitals in 2008. They’re held between March and May and are hosted for staff as a way to show our appreciation. And I get to live vicariously through these students. This year, we have had about five recitals already, and we have 13 more to go.
I also bring in works of art created by students to display at the chancellor’s residence and highlight at events for alumni, donors and community members that we host there. I go to all the student exhibitions over at the Wight Gallery in the Broad Art Center and pick out some of my favorites. Then we ask the students’ permission to loan their artwork to the campus for a year. It’s been another great program and a way to showcase our students’ amazing work.
And when you come to UCLA, how can you not be influenced by athletics? When Gene was the provost at the University of Virginia, I had a whole different life. I was working full time, we were raising two kids and we hardly went to any sporting events. But once we came to UCLA, that changed. Twice a year, I invite a cohort of staff and their guests to attend a women’s athletic event. We typically have a reception, we hear from the coach and then we cheer on the team. This spring, we’re going to be attending the rowing team’s competition in Marina del Rey.
Why is women’s representation in leadership positions important?
There are so many decisions and policies that affect women. I think women want to be part of the conversation so they can be sure that their concerns are being considered and addressed. It can be difficult for a lot of leaders to understand the real-life ramifications of policies if they don’t have that lived experience. Most of the decisions that have significant impacts on women have been made by men. That is why groups like the Iris Cantor–UCLA Women’s Health Center are so important to address the disparities in research about women’s health. I attend a conference once a year to learn about the work of the physician researchers.
You mentioned some of the women who influenced you during childhood. Are there any women leaders who stand out to you now?
Michelle Obama has been an inspiration to me. As first lady for eight years, she raised two daughters in the White House and kept them on an even keel and well grounded during their vulnerable years. She tried to have them live as normal a life as they could. In addition, she created the Let’s Move campaign to help children live a healthy life and brought attention to the issue of food deserts — rural and urban areas where people don’t have access to proper nutrition — among other important work. She was also very brave to share her challenges with depression. When she spoke here at UCLA, we had the opportunity to meet her briefly.
I feel like I can relate to the experience of being a first lady, since that is somewhat like my role here at UCLA, albeit on a smaller scale. It’s not a position that you’re trained to do; you’re kind of thrown into it. At the University of Virginia, I had very little involvement in what Gene was doing. It’s completely different now. I really love this campus and its people. It’s wonderful!
What qualities do you think make an effective leader?
There are several qualities that make an effective leader. It’s important to seek out feedback and have empathy for the people that you’re leading. You have to understand them and be kind. You should have a vision and be able to see the potential for positive change. Leaders have to know how to delegate to others and surround themselves with good people. Leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the larger purpose. I am an introverted person, so the traditional perceptions of leadership don’t work for me. I lead in my own way — quietly.