Former Chief Campus Counsel Marcia Canning, UC Stalwart for More Than Three Decades, Dies

By Kate Vidinsky

Marcia Canning
Marcia J. Canning, JD, led UCSF’s Office of Legal Affairs before her retirement in 2013. Photo by Susan Merrell

Marcia J. Canning, JD, UC San Francisco’s former chief campus counsel, who bolstered the University’s legal services program and served more than three decades in the University of California system, has died. She was 69.

Before retiring from UCSF in June 2013, Canning held the highest post in the Office of Legal Affairs, advising the chancellor, campus and UCSF Medical Center on applicable laws and regulations, institutional policy, decision-making, and legal problem solving. She increased the University’s legal services capacity and led the office in process improvements and administrative modernization that resulted in more effectively responding to the needs of the campus and Medical Center communities.

“Marcia was an excellent mentor, friend and leader of the Office of Legal Affairs,” said Greta Schnetzler, JD, UCSF’s current chief campus counsel and Canning’s immediate successor following her retirement. “She understood what a very special place this is, from the entrepreneurial nature and the quest for excellence that all our faculty, students and administrators have, and she honored that in the legal work that she did.”

Canning began her tenure at UCSF in 2001, after more than a decade at the UC Hastings College of Law, where she served as general counsel. Prior to that, she spent 17 years at the UC Office of the General Counsel, where she worked on every campus and the National Laboratories on a variety of legal projects.

“I imagined Marcia as carrying on forever given her willpower and endless energy. We were all fortunate to know her,” said Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who worked closely with Canning during her tenure as UCSF chancellor.

A Trusted Adviser, Leader and Mentor

During her time at UCSF, Canning provided legal counsel on a wide range of issues, including academic affairs, research misconduct, compliance and regulatory matters, employment issues, whistleblower complaints, business transactions, affiliation agreements, and Medical Center matters.

“Marcia was a cherished member of our UCSF team. Whether it was a complex legal issue or a crisis of some sort, Marcia handled every issue calmly, with skill and tact,” said Mark Laret, president and chief executive officer of UCSF Health. “She brought a rare grace and humanity to all her work and to all of her professional relationships. We miss her dearly.”

Her expertise was also invaluable during the initial phase of rapid growth on the Mission Bay campus.

She worked with employees at all levels, from deans, chairs and vice chancellors grappling with institutional issues, to a custodian seeking a temporary restraining order. Canning passionately applied the same principles of law to every issue she tackled and all areas of her practice.

“Get the facts right before making a decision. Often people will jump to a conclusion. And fairness is another principle that is key to giving good legal advice,” she said in an interview shortly before her retirement.

In addition to her role as a trusted legal adviser, Canning worked hard to increase UCSF’s legal services capacity, growing the Office of Legal Affairs from two attorneys when she joined to its current size of five attorneys and three analysts. Her philosophy was to recruit, train and nurture attorneys and staff who are service-oriented and can function as true business partners for their clients.

“Marcia was a remarkable mentor and knew how to focus on an individual’s strengths while providing opportunities to grow,” Schnetzler said. “For me, the reason I came to UCSF was the opportunity to work with Marcia. I admired her wit, humor, intellect and passion for the University.”

Discovering Law and Never Looking Back

Canning was born in Oakland on April 18, 1948. Her affinity for UC developed early, as her father worked at UC Berkeley, where he brought his daughter to see her first opera and basketball game. She attended Holy Names University, majoring in sociology and French.

After graduation, Canning worked briefly as a secretary at UC Davis Medical School and decided to take a pre-law course. Canning held her own as the only woman in the class and liked it so much she went on to enroll at Hastings College of the Law, where she graduated in 1976. Before coming to UC, Canning spent five years working as a trial attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in San Francisco and Oakland.

Once she discovered law, it never lost its appeal. She worked long hours at UCSF, often coming in six days a week, sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m. in order to advise a surgeon or anesthesiologist. Canning always took the demands of the job in stride and said it was “a privilege and an honor to have worked with people here.”

“If you don’t practice in the health law area, it’s hard to understand the added stress and pressure of working in that environment, and in that environment, Marcia was beloved,” said Jeffrey Blair, who worked with Canning at the UC Office of General Counsel and currently serves as chief laboratory counsel at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Marcia was tough as nails and a very keen strategist. She consistently delivered for her demanding clients year after year after year.”  

Shortly before her retirement, Canning moved from San Francisco to Oakland to be closer to her two grandchildren, Darijah and Darryl. She spent countless hours volunteering at their school, where she helped create a new garden, and taking them on weekend adventures to the California Academy of Sciences and the Randall Museum, according to Schnetzler.

Canning passed away in her sleep at home on Jan. 4. In addition to her grandchildren, Canning is survived by her husband, Jay Pollack; her daughter, Leah Pollack; her three sisters, Cynthia Canning, Mary Canning and Claire Conway; as well as her “adopted” sister Donna Maynard and her nephews Douglas and Thomas Watson and Stephen Lazaro, according to a published obituary.

For more campus news and resources, visit Pulse of UCSF.