La Jolla Heroines: Mary Walshok built on her relationships to reach success as an ‘academic entrepreneur’

Mary Walshok, who served as dean of UC San Diego Extension for 40 years, says "relationships are everything."
(Courtesy of Mary Walshok)

Much of La Jolla’s early advancement was fueled by prolific philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. But many more women have followed in being important benefactors to La Jolla. This new series by the Light highlights local women who have worked for decades to further the evolution of La Jolla and areas beyond.

Mary Walshok, a self-described “academic entrepreneur,” has spent decades pursuing her interest in workforce development and regional economic growth and has forged her success on the foundation of the relationships she’s built.

Though she lives in Del Mar, she says she’s actually spent more hours in La Jolla. She retired in June after 40 years as dean of UC San Diego Extension, a program that expanded under her leadership to its current 80,000 annual enrollees in more than 4,400 courses. UCSD Extension offers continuing education, certificate and degree-related programs and community initiatives.

Walshok’s deanship also saw the start of UCSD-TV, which is, 35 years later, “the most watched university station on Google and YouTube,” she said. There also was the launch of several programs, such as San Diego Dialogue, a public policy research center for binational issues in the region.

Walshok answered questions about her success and what comes next for the community:

Q. What about UCSD Extension spoke to you? Talk about your endeavors there.

A. “Extension and continuing-education schools across the country were the first to facilitate the reentry of women [into the workforce] — women who hadn’t finished their degrees because maybe they got married and started a family, [or] women who had a career, [then] stayed at home. I was hired to focus on programs that addressed this generation of women who were returning to school or returning to work.

“I completely fell in love with it. … I created a whole sort of curriculum to empower bright, ambitious women to return to work or school.”

As she took on the deanship, then-UCSD Chancellor Richard Atkinson asked, “Why aren’t we doing more in continuing education for engineers and business leaders and managers?” Walshok said. “He set an agenda for how Extension would be vital to the regional economy.”

The past five years, with the support of current Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, “we put a lot of energy behind building pipeline programs for first-generation and underrepresented kids,” Walshok said. “I feel as though I’ve retired having left an extraordinary platform on which to build all kinds of programs and new opportunities.”

Q. What contributed to your success in furthering UCSD’s reach in La Jolla and beyond?

A. “I really want to underscore how important my friendships and my professional relationships with women were. When I came out of my Ph.D. program, there just weren’t that many lawyers, doctors [or] women Ph.Ds in the 1960s. We all kind of knew one another.

“I also became connected to a group of women who were involved in the arts, social service programs for youth, advocacy for foster youth and who were really smart and energetic. Those friendships … really gave me the confidence and the connections.

“Because of the network of emerging powerful women that I was becoming a part of, I got to know a lot of important men in San Diego. … What got me the job [as Extension dean] is that I knew so many people and so much about the regional economy and the aspirations of a lot of civic leaders. It was through women that I learned all of that.”

Additionally, UCSD “was able to recognize and leverage talented women for professional roles in Extension.”

Mary Walshok presents longtime civic leader Malin Burnham with the Philanthropy in Peacemaking award in 2019.
Mary Walshok, then-dean of UC San Diego Extension, presents longtime civic leader Malin Burnham with the National Conflict Resolution Center’s Philanthropy in Peacemaking award in 2019.

Q. What’s your advice to the next generation of female leaders?

A. “Reputation trumps position. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, if I just get this position … people will respect me and people will work with me.’

“You have to earn respect, partnerships and support through producing good work. Even though I’ve spent my life as ‘only’ a dean of Extension … my reputation, regionally, nationally and internationally, is much bigger because from that position, in this very entrepreneurial environment, it was possible to do unique things to create unique value that earns respect.

“The second thing I would say is, relationships are everything. Everyone has something of value to share, so the wider your web of relationships, the more assets you can tap into as a person and as a leader.

“The third thing is, I want to make a distinction [between] mentors and sponsors. Atkinson was a role model, but he was also a sponsor. He had me represent him at meetings, he invited me to participate in conversations about the future of the university. And that’s sponsorship. He elevated my skills as well as my reputation.

“It’s fine to have mentors, but you need to be aligned with people … who revel in your being successful and not just use you to achieve their success.”

Q. What do local residents need to be paying attention to? What worries you?

A. “I think my generation, and my tribe, which is the academic community, are overly preoccupied with technical solutions to problems that have a deep social and cultural component to them.

“I feel that the paradox of UCSD in this very well-educated community is we think, ‘Well, the science and technology are there; it’s obvious,’ but we haven’t done enough to understand that a Muslim, a Catholic, a Lutheran may approach problems in a different way. I think we’re also, in our passion for environmentalism and climate change and sustainability, at times insensitive to the negative consequences for poorer and working people.

“It worries me a lot because I care about the environment. I care about equitable health care and I certainly care about equity, diversity and inclusiveness. Sometimes in the university, we think, ‘Oh, we’ll just invite them to the campus and they’ll fall in love with us.’ I think maybe the campus has to go where people are, embed itself in the community.”

Q. Talk about your next project for UCSD, the new facility in downtown San Diego. What excites you about that?

A. “It’s at Park and Market, on the trolley line. [Its] mission is to connect the university, in all its dimensions, with the community, in all its diversity, so that conversations and mutual understanding can occur.

“That means that we — the university and our faculty — have as much to learn from the community as the community has to learn from us. And [this building] … will be a place where conversations and experiences will be shared, as opposed to separate, and hopefully build more common ground in terms of how to implement social change moving forward.

“In a sense, this center can model this more integrated, culturally and socially, society that we’re going to need if we’re going to apply all these technical and scientific solutions to everyday life.”

Q. What do you want your legacy to be?

A. “I would like my legacy to be that I was respected in multiple communities for being a connector and a bridge builder. Because through connections and bridge building, I believe people find common ground and develop respect for one another.” ◆