Gene Block to step down as UCLA’s chancellor next summer

After 17 years at the helm of the nation’s top-ranked public university, the campus’s ninth chief executive will conclude his tenure in July 2024

Todd Schindler and Sean Brenner | 

Key takeaways

  • Block began his tenure on Aug. 1, 2007; his final day as chancellor will be July 31, 2024.
  • Under his leadership, UCLA has increased enrollment​​​​​​, guaranteed housing to undergraduates, risen to the top of national rankings, nearly doubled its research funding, expanded its geographic footprint throughout Los Angeles and deepened its commitment to access, affordability, diversity and service.
  • Following his tenure, Block, an internationally recognized neurobiologist, plans to devote more time to teaching and research at UCLA.
  • The UC Office of the President will launch a national search for his replacement.

In 2006, soon after receiving the news that he would become UCLA’s next chancellor, Gene Block and his wife, Carol, finished their meal with a fortune cookie. The message? “In order to cross a great river, you have to take a great leap.”

Having leapt across countless rivers since, Block will step down from his role as UCLA’s top executive on July 31, 2024, after 17 years of transformative leadership.

In an era when most university leaders’ tenures last less than six years, Block has become an elder statesman in higher education and a guiding force not only for UCLA but for California and the nation. The choice to call it a day, he admitted, was bittersweet.

“This decision was by no means an easy one,” he wrote today in a message to the Bruin community. “But I have the greatest confidence in UCLA’s future, and I feel that the time is right — for me, for my family and for our campus.”

University of California President Michael Drake praised Block’s service and contributions to the campus.

“For nearly two decades, Chancellor Block has helped UCLA grow into a powerhouse of excellence, opportunity and access. He has been a dear friend and a dedicated partner in tackling many of the university’s challenges,” Drake said. “Chancellor Block’s efforts to forge new community partnerships, enhance the student experience and grow the research enterprise will benefit UCLA and the state of California for years to come.”

When he arrived on campus in August 2007 after nearly three decades at the University of Virginia, Block insisted that his goal for UCLA was “to make a great place even better.”

He has delivered on that promise, and then some. Under his stewardship, research funding has doubled, and the campus’s annual budget has increased from $4 billion to nearly $11 billion. Enrollment has grown by 9,000 students, and the campus has added more than a dozen new housing facilities.

The campus has risen from No. 4 to No. 1 among public universities in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings, and UCLA Health is consistently rated among the nation’s top five hospitals. In athletics, Bruin teams captured 21 NCAA championships during Block’s tenure, boosting UCLA’s total to 121 — second-most among all colleges.

The Centennial Campaign for UCLA, at the time of its launch the largest fundraising effort ever undertaken by a public university, raised nearly $5.5 billion between 2014 and 2019, helping to bolster student scholarships, faculty support, research, capital projects and the campus’s endowment.

UCLA acquired new properties in the South Bay and downtown Los Angeles to better serve students and strengthen ties to the region’s diverse communities, opened nearly 25 newly constructed buildings on campus and in Westwood, and grew from the seventh-largest to the fourth-largest employer in Los Angeles County.

And UCLA Health expanded access to its world-class care with the addition of some 200 clinics throughout Southern California, the acquisition of a Mid-Wilshire property for a new state-of-the-art psychiatric hospital and the launch of initiatives including the Homeless Healthcare Collaborative, which provides free mobile medical and behavioral care to unhoused people in Los Angeles.

Service has always been one of the three components of UCLA’s mission, along with research and education. But the ways in which students, staff and faculty serve the Los Angeles and global communities — through volunteerism and community-engaged scholarship — took on new dimensions during Block’s tenure. In 2009, his team initiated UCLA Volunteer Day, with more than 4,000 Bruins fanning out across Los Angeles for a day of hands-on community service. The program has become a fall ritual, with some 8,000 Bruins participating each year in the nation’s largest service project for new university students.

When major challenges arose — the Great Recession and COVID-19 among them — Block’s sure-handedness and optimism helped steer the campus forward.

“Chancellor Block has led UCLA through both calm and turbulent times with his distinctive blend of heart and smarts,” said Jessica Cattelino, chair of UCLA’s Academic Senate. “He has shaped and told UCLA’s story in ways that touch the lives of many thousands of students, and he has enabled our campus and broader community to thrive.”

Those who have worked with him over the years have described Block as a humble man, a deep thinker and a skilled problem-solver who brings together a wide range of people, asks questions, listens attentively, collaborates on a vision and then acts decisively.

“Scientific-y,” is how one acquaintance described his approach, which is not surprising given Block’s background.

As a youth in Monticello, New York, he loved tinkering with mechanical things, from radios to cars. After beginning his studies at Foothill College, he went on to study psychology at Stanford University and the University of Oregon, where he earned his doctorate, and later became internationally recognized for his work on the body’s “biological clock,” the timing system that allows us to adjust our behavior and physiology to the cycle of day and night.

At Virginia, he led a team that received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to establish an NSF Center for Biological Timing. Three investigators from that team were ultimately awarded Nobel Prizes for their contributions to the understanding of how biological clocks function.

Block said he looks forward to spending more time on research and teaching in those areas when his time as chancellor concludes; he holds faculty appointments in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and in the department of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College.

Research excellence: Enhancing UCLA, serving the greater good

Over the past 16 years, in the face of dwindling state support, Block and his team have focused UCLA’s efforts on attracting research funds to help sustain its trajectory as one of the world’s great public research institutions.

Since Block took office in 2007, UCLA has nearly doubled the amount of competitively awarded research grants and contracts it receives per year — from $913 million to more than $1.7 billion in 2022 — and the campus regularly ranks among the nation’s top five universities in research expenditures. Those achievements, Block said, are a testament to UCLA’s dedicated and innovative faculty, staff and student researchers, many of whom are working to develop solutions for society’s most challenging issues.

As chancellor, Block has continuously promoted a spirit of discovery and collaboration with the greater good in mind. In 2013 and 2015, he helped launch two “grand challenges,” potentially UCLA’s most transformative research projects. The first aims to turn Los Angeles into the world’s most sustainable megacity by 2050; the second seeks to understand, prevent and treat depression — and reduce its health and economic impacts by half by 2050.

“Gene has the unique ability to establish a high-level vision while fostering inclusive decision-making processes across departments, schools and units,” said UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt. “His approach has always helped to bring a sense of unity and shared purpose across the UCLA community.”

At the same time, he has sought to harness the university’s immense creative research capital by nurturing the commercial prospects for technologies and inventions generated by students and faculty. The home of multiple technology incubators and venture accelerators, UCLA is now a thriving hive of startup activity.

In 2014, Block helped create the UCLA Technology Development Group, a not-for-profit company that protects and optimizes campus discoveries and inventions. As of late 2022, that unit had generated more than $460 million in licensing income and $240 million in industry-sponsored research awards for UCLA.

Block traveled to Stockholm in 2012 as a guest of UCLA Nobel laureate Lloyd Shapley. In all, five Bruins — three UCLA faculty members and two alumni — were awarded Nobel prizes during Block’s time as chancellor.

Campus housing: Building a living community

Enrollment has surged during Block’s tenure by nearly 25%, to 46,500 from 37,500, and his commitment to UCLA’s master plans for student housing helped ensure that more of those students can live on campus.

Between 2012 and 2022, half a dozen new residence halls rose on the Hill, along with several apartment complexes in Westwood Village. In all, the campus has added some 10,400 new beds since he took office. As a result, while many other University of California campuses have struggled to provide residences for their students, UCLA in 2022 became the first and only UC campus to guarantee up to four years of university housing for incoming freshmen and two years for transfer students.

The opportunity to live on or near campus, Block said at the time, “contributes greatly both to students’ educational experiences and to the richness of our community.”

And Block, in his own way, has played a role in that richness. Known by students as “Daddy Gene,” the chancellor, often accompanied by Carol, makes frequent appearances across campus, helping with move-ins, handing out cookies during finals, joining students in volunteering, and attending sports and cultural events.

“He is this larger-than-life figure at UCLA,” said Ann Wang, president of the UCLA Alumni Association. “He is warm and approachable, and members of the community — especially alumni — always appreciate seeing him out on campus and at events in the city, throughout the country and around the world. I would love to know how many selfies he has taken with Bruins over the years.”

Access and affordability: Keeping UCLA’s engine of opportunity running

“UCLA,” Block has said, “was founded on the notion that access to a top-tier education should be available to talented individuals of all backgrounds and financial means.”

The campus has for several years been the most-applied-to university in the country; nearly 170,000 students applied for undergraduate admission in fall 2023 alone. But beyond those lofty numbers, Block is prouder of UCLA’s role as a vital engine of social mobility and opportunity, in particular for students from lower-income families and underrepresented groups.

Nearly a third of UCLA undergraduates who earn a degree are first-generation college graduates — as Block himself was. In addition, about one-quarter are transfer students and one-third receive federal Pell Grants. Under Block’s leadership, the campus implemented a range of outreach efforts, community partnerships and other programs not only to attract students to UCLA, but to expand young students’ access, especially in underserved schools, to college preparation.

One groundbreaking accomplishment toward that goal was the opening, in 2009, of the UCLA Community School, a partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The school provides high-quality education to students in the underserved Koreatown/Pico-Union neighborhood, with instructional programs and teacher training developed by experts from the UCLA School of Education & Information Studies.

In 2012, UCLA created the first enrollment management division in the UC system, bringing under one umbrella the campus’s outreach, recruitment, admissions, financial aid and related departments to holistically address enrollment goals and students’ needs. And in 2018, that division launched Project Welcome, a program aimed at middle and high school students who might believe a UCLA education isn’t attainable or affordable. The initiative provides students with information about why college matters, how they can become competitive applicants and how they can obtain financial support.

Similarly, the Center for Community College Partnerships offers mentorship and advising programs that have helped ensure students transferring from community colleges — many of whom thought they might never attend a four-year university — have the knowledge and confidence to thrive at UCLA.

“Outreach efforts like this, I believe, can make a real difference in changing lives by removing barriers to the recruitment, retention and advancement of talented students,” Block said. “Such efforts also help to ensure diversity, so that our entire campus community can benefit from having students with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.”

Block also understood that, in order to succeed, those programs must be complemented by initiatives that support students once they arrive. From the beginning of his tenure, he has championed raising funds for student support.

In 2009, he announced the Bruin Scholars Initiative, a program to garner $500 million for undergraduate scholarships and graduate student fellowships, to which he and Carol personally contributed. In the midst of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, he launched the Chancellor’s Centennial Scholars Match Program to bring in an additional $150 million in scholarship support. And this April, he introduced the UCLA Affordability Initiative, which will raise money for scholarships with the goals of making undergraduate degrees more affordable and eliminating the burden of student loans.

“He’s always thinking about what our students need to be successful,” said Alicia Miñana de Lovelace, chair of the UCLA Foundation Board of Directors. “He helped mobilize our alumni and donors to create and fund scholarship programs so that more students could have access to a world-class UCLA education without the burden of loan debt.”

Diversity initiatives: Reflecting the tapestry of California and the nation

As Block took the reins in 2007, the campus was navigating a crisis in terms of the historically low numbers of students from underrepresented backgrounds, and Black students in particular, who were applying and being admitted to UCLA — a crisis that was largely the legacy of California’s Proposition 209. More focused outreach and a change to holistic admissions had just been put in place under the leadership of Block’s predecessor, Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams. Building on those efforts and continuing throughout his tenure, Block has prioritized ensuring that UCLA reflects the diversity of California and the nation, not only among the student population but among faculty, and that all members of the Bruin community have the support they need to thrive.

That led to, among other measures, the creation in 2015 of a vice chancellor position to oversee equity, diversity and inclusion efforts, along with an EDI office and new diversity officer positions; a new Black Bruin Resource Center offering programing and services to anyone interested in Black life; a five-year plan to hire faculty whose work relates to Black experience; and a new position for a staff member to maximize philanthropic support for Black life, teaching and research.

In 2020, UCLA announced its goal of achieving federal designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by 2025. And in early 2023, Block and Hunt introduced the Faculty Forward Initiative, a campuswide effort focusing on the recruitment and retention of faculty committed to scholarship, research, mentorship and education related to those who have traditionally been underrepresented in academia. Those initiatives, like numerous others, were made possible through Block’s close collaboration with faculty and administrators.

“Gene’s approach to leadership is people-focused and empowering. He seems to have a way of always bringing out the best in those who work with him,” Carol Block said. “He is kind and empathetic, genuinely cares for people and has a remarkable ability to truly listen to what someone is saying.”

In his campus announcement, Block signaled that there are still more rivers to leap before he shifts his focus back to his research. The next 11 months promise to be extremely productive.

“I look forward to the opportunities ahead,” he wrote, “to working on the campus’s new strategic plan, refining programming for our UCLA South Bay and UCLA Downtown properties, growing our faculty with a focus on diversity, supporting major research initiatives, deepening our ties to the city of Los Angeles and laying the groundwork for our institution’s next fundraising campaign.”

And after next summer?

“I also look forward to spending more time with my children and grandchildren.”

The UC Office of the President will launch a national search for the campus’s next chancellor.