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 Professor Gene D. Block

93rd Congregation (2024)

Professor Gene D. Block

Doctor of Laws


Leaders in higher education have more responsibility than ever in these uncertain times of rapid technological and social change, and in light of the existential challenge of securing a sustainable future for our world. Yet in such times there are also many opportunities, through education and new knowledge, to enrich all that it is to be human.

As they have in the past, universities play a key role in shaping the future, through our education, research and community services. This is the ecosystem within which we at this university operate, and to address those challenges and benefit from the many opportunities, we understand that it extends far beyond our campus and city, across borders, in both the collaboration and friendly competition that spur on the progress of our activities. 

Institutions are, of course, made up of individuals. From the newest students to the person at the helm, each individual possesses the power to effect change. Collectively, they can nurture the university ecosystem and inspire those around them.  Higher education leaders who manage to build a legacy that advances the sector, and serve as role models for their students and staff, the broader communities they serve, and their partners and competitors, are important to us all.

Today’s , Professor Gene Block, Chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, or UCLA, is such a leader, admired across the world of higher education for the tangible progress his institution has made during his 17-year tenure.

Professor Block is widely recognised as a steadfast advocate for high-quality, accessible public higher education – ideals that resonate deeply with our own values at CUHK. Since assuming the role of Chancellor in 2007, he has consistently prioritised academic excellence, civic engagement, diversity and financial security. Under his leadership, UCLA has enhanced its position as a leader in enrolling undergraduates from more disadvantaged, or traditionally underrepresented, backgrounds. For seven years, it has been the highest-ranked public university in the United States, according to U.S. News and World Report. And we at CUHK are proud to have become one of UCLA’s international partners during Block’s leadership - UCLA being an institutional collaborator with the Asia Institute’s Asia in the Humanities/Humanities in Asia Initiative, for example, and engaging in extensive student and faculty exchange with us.

Yet within the next few weeks, Professor Block, now 75, will be stepping down as Chancellor. He will be able to leave his post satisfied that UCLA is well-placed for its continued development. Its endowment grew from US$2.2 billion to US$7.7 billion during his tenure, in part due to a US$5.49 billion fundraising campaign – one of the largest ever undertaken by a public university – and there are plans Professor Block laid that will  extend the university’s physical footprint and influence throughout Los Angeles. 

Two ‘Grand Challenges’ he set for UCLA to connect research to the greater good will continue. The first, Sustainable LA, is focused on transforming the city into a model green megacity; the second, the Depression Grand Challenge, aims to understand, prevent and treat depression, and halve its global health and economic impacts by 2050. The World Health Organisation has long identified anxiety disorders as the single biggest economic burden of ill health across the developed world. Two years before the COVID-19 pandemic, depression in the US was estimated to cost its economy more than US$326 billion a year, having increased in its prevalence by about one-third since 2010. It is a greater burden in the post-pandemic era.

Professor Block has addressed other challenges in his role, for example in taking a stand against antisemitism, racism and anti-Asia hate and bias, as well as defending LGBT+ rights.

Despite being in charge of an institution comparable in size to a small to medium-sized city – with close to 46,500 students, 8,000 faculty members and research grant income alone now reaching US$1.6 billion a year – Professor Block still finds time for his own research and teaching as a neuroscientist, work to which he will be devoting more time in the next phase of his career. Seemingly operating to his own high-energy circadian rhythm, retirement is not on his agenda.

The focus of his research should be of particular interest to the many of us who do not manage to get as much sleep as we need.  He has made key discoveries about the biological workings of circadian rhythms across the sentient world, from the humble mollusk to the human. Currently, he is exploring the effects of aging on the nervous system and how it impacts biological timing in mammals, including humans. After leaving the Chancellor’s role, he will continue this work through his faculty appointments in psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and in integrative biology and physiology at the UCLA College of Letters and Science.

In his youth, Professor Block learned much about curtailed sleep. He was born in Monticello, New York, the grandson of immigrants from Hungary. His father and uncle owned Mountain Dairies and during his high school summer holidays, he would be up by 4 a.m. to deliver dairy products to summer camps and hotels in the Catskill area. He burnt the candle at both ends – on Saturday evenings he would play piano as part of a dance music trio in a resort. He was also an enthusiast for shortwave radio and still enjoys tinkering with his collection of about 50 antique radios.

Academia beckoned him away from the mountains. First came a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Stanford University, during which the 19-year-old Gene Block memorably sat in on a course delivered by a young Lawrence Lau – a mutual pleasure for our former Vice-Chancellor and the Chancellor of UCLA to recall during CUHK’s 60th Anniversary Banquet.  It was followed by a master’s degree and PhD from the University of Oregon. In 1978, he joined the University of Virginia, as a faculty member in the Department of Biology. Serving as vice provost for research from 1993 to 1998, and then vice-president from 2001, he remained there until his academic career led him to UCLA.

He was also the founding director of the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center in Biological Timing. This center’s research has fundamentally changed our understanding of biological processes, such as the first identification, largely led by Joseph Takahashi, of the ‘clock’ gene in a mammal, namely a mutant mouse.

Professor Block’s contributions to the development of higher education also extend far beyond the borders of UCLA, for example serving on the executive boards of the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. He is currently on the Steering Committee for the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, of which CUHK is a member. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and recipient of numerous professional awards.

One of the key roles of a leader is to empower others to succeed and lead. This is essential in a community as complex and enduring as a university. In this respect, Professor Block’s greatest debt is owed to Carol, his wife of 54 years, who, as associate of the chancellor, has helped women flourish as leaders on campus, supported student artists and women’s athletic teams, and hosted student recitals, among other initiatives. The contributions that such partnerships make are beyond price.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, it is my great honour to present Professor Gene Block, who we can so greatly admire as a champion of public higher education and the wider public good, for the award of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


Citation is presented by Professor Nick Rawlins,

Pro-Vice-Chancellor / Vice-President (Student Experience) and Master of Morningside College