Laurel L. Wilkening was born in Richland, Washington, in 1944 and raised in Socorro, New Mexico. She received her bachelor's degree in 1966 from Reed College in Oregon and earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego, in 1970.
Wilkening's academic and administrative careers began at the University of Arizona, where her first appointment was as professor of Geological Chemistry in 1970. She later served as Dean and Vice President for Research from 1985 to1988. From 1988 to 1993 she was Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle.
A renowned planetary scientist and expert on comets and meteorites, Wilkening served on various NASA committees and boards during the 1990s: Vice Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Programs, Vice Chair of the National Commission on Space, and Chair of the Space Policy Advisory Board.
Wilkening came to UCI in 1993 to become its third Chancellor, as well as the third female Chancellor in the University of California's 125-year history. Like the other campuses of the University of California during that time, UCI was struggling with a budgetary crisis and severe reductions in state funding.
During her five-year tenure the campus received its first two Nobel Prizes, contributed more than $1 billion per year to the local economy, completed 250,000 square-feet of construction, and attracted increased private, state and federal funding. UCI also achieved Wilkening's goal to move into the ranks of America's top 50 research universities (1995) and was elected to membership in the prestigious American Association of Universities (1996). Her term as Chancellor was made difficult, however, by the unfolding Fertility Clinic scandal that ended with the firing of three College of Medicine professors and settlement of a variety of patient lawsuits.
Since retiring in 1998, Wilkening has remained active as a board member for the Planetary Society, the Commission on the Status of Women, and various environmental groups.
In spring 2005 Chancellor Ralph Cicerone dedicated the Laurel L. Wilkening Rose Garden in front of the Barclay Theatre in her honor.
University of California, Irvine, Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening records . AS-030. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California. Accessed Oct. 30, 2017.
Photograph: University Communications Photographs. AS-061, Box 21. University of California, Irvine Libraries. Special Collections and Archives. The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California. Accessed Oct. 30, 2017.