Carol Padden, MA ’80, PhD ’83
When Carol Padden arrived on campus to study linguistics in 1978, she had no idea how far she would go, nor that she would never leave. But going from grad student to dean of Social Sciences was aided by what she considers UC San Diego’s most defining strength: “We have the ability to change our structure as needed, and that’s not always the case for other universities that are more steeped in tradition. They struggle with how to get out of that tradition to make new plans. That’s not the case here.”
Padden’s plan to study linguistics was inspired by her unique upbringing as the second deaf child of two deaf parents. She used sign language at home growing up in Washington, D.C., making it hard to get by when she transferred to a public grade school. “I was the only deaf child among hearing classmates,” says Padden. “It was like walking in two different worlds.” She traces her initial interest in language back to the experience of moving between these worlds, essentially communicating across cultures.
This fascination brought her to UC San Diego, where she focused on language emergence, structure and cultural life in deaf communities. Such focus broke new ground in linguistics on the broader relation of mind, culture and gesture. After earning her degrees, she was among the first cohort to be hired as permanent faculty into the university’s Department of Communication.
After 35 years of teaching, research and numerous administrative roles, she was appointed dean of the Division of Social Sciences in 2014, the first-ever UC San Diego alumnus to serve in a top academic position. She now oversees the university’s largest division—11 departments and 16 interdisciplinary programs and research centers, and of course the education of 10,000 students during any given year. But her favorite part of the job? Meeting alumni.
“When you connect with alumni, they tell you about their experience, what they have learned, and they give me a sense of where the university needs to be in the next five to 10 years,” says Padden. “It’s my job to take the university there—to bring in the past and plan for the future.”