So Long, Rebecca Blank
The chancellor has mixed feelings about leaving UW–Madison after a transformative tenure.
After nine years as chancellor, Rebecca Blank will leave UW–Madison in May to become president of Northwestern University. She admits to mixed feelings about packing up her Badger mementos. On the one hand, Blank feels she has done what she set out to do during her long tenure and is ready to make room for new leadership. On the other hand, she will miss a university that provided her with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities — and that even named a tart ice cream flavor after her. Given the serious challenges the chancellor faced on campus, from budget crises to COVID-19, she has a surprisingly joyful piece of advice for her yet-to-be-named successor.
How do you feel about leaving UW–Madison?
I will miss many aspects of this job. My husband and I regularly go to the Terrace on summer evenings. There’s not another spot like that on any college campus in the country. Football Game Day in Madison is unique, and the Field House when the women’s volleyball team is playing is just so much fun. I also love interacting with Bucky whenever he shows up. On the other hand, I’ve been here nine years. I feel that I have moved forward those things that I have the skills and ability for, and that it’s time to let someone else lead with a different set of skills and the ability to do some things I haven’t done.
What was it like to come to campus after serving as acting secretary of commerce in the Obama administration?
It was a wonderful job to come into. The Wisconsin Idea is unique here, and people cherish it. I remember during my first weeks, as I walked across campus, people would say, “Are you the new chancellor? Say, have you heard about the Wisconsin Idea? You’ve got to know about that!” I thought, “They’re really serious about that here, aren’t they?”
What have you liked best about the job?
I love the size and scope of this place, which means you never get bored. Every day brings a new issue or problem.
COVID is a classic example of that. Within four months, we had to redo all aspects of the university: how we ran our buildings, how we ran our labs, how we ran our classrooms, how people worked. Everything changed, and I have never worked harder than I worked in that time period.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
It was in 2015, when the legislature took tenure out of state statutes and turned it back to the regents. The regents did the right thing, writing tenure rules that were very similar to our peers. But that took six to nine months. Meanwhile, the faculty wondered, “Is tenure gone?” That was a deep existential threat to this university. There were times when I thought it was quite possible that half of our faculty would be gone within the next few years. We lost some really good people, and it affected us. Within two years, we were back to normal retention levels, hiring great people. Three years later, we had the biggest new incoming class of faculty we’ve ever had. Our research dollars started growing steadily and strongly. But it took a lot of effort.
How do you think UW–Madison has changed under your leadership?
When I got here, it became clear to me that we had to be more in control of our future, particularly our financial future. So I launched a number of initiatives designed to create revenue that we could use to invest in this university, and those were all quite successful. We’ve moved faculty salaries from the bottom of the Big Ten to number five. We’ve moved graduate funding from the bottom of the Big Ten to above the median. We’ve been able to create scholarships and access programs like Bucky’s Tuition Promise, and we’ve invested in a number of big new ventures such as the School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences.
I’d like to believe that we’ve had some cultural change, where people understand that there are ways to raise money and be entrepreneurial. We must do this if we want to remain a modern, topflight university.
I’m also proud of the sustained work we’ve done on diversity issues over my tenure. We’re doing a lot more programming, with more people thinking about and acting on these issues. We have more to do, but the culture is changing.
What kinds of changes do you think the university will undergo over the next few years?
I hope that whoever succeeds me will have the creativity to come up with the next round of ideas for how to generate investment income. One of the things we’ve been working on is real estate development, both on and off campus. We own a lot of land, much of it not being used very well. I think there’s a real opportunity for us to do something that serves our campus and the community better and also generates additional revenue. It’s an exciting new venture for the university, and it will be in the hands of whoever follows me.
Do you have any advice for the next chancellor?
Certain things that are unique to this job are enormously fun. There’s not another job in the country where you have commencements with 45,000 people in a football stadium and you’re the host of the show. Where you have convocations with all these wonderful 18-year-olds coming in, eager to start the next phase of their lives. Where you get an ice cream named after you. And then there’s the intellectual atmosphere on campus — being able to walk into any lab and talk to the faculty about what they’re doing. Enjoy all of that! Because there will be a lot of hard parts to this job as well. You have to renew yourself with the joy that comes with the good parts.
What stands out among “the good parts”?
We’ve gone to one Rose Bowl since I’ve been here, and that was an amazing event, different from anything I’ve ever done. Two nights before the game, they have this fancy dress-up ball, with dancers and singers — all the Los Angeles glitz, which we don’t do a lot of here in Madison.
Will you bring any UW keepsakes with you to Northwestern?
I have the basketballs from the two Final Fours that we were in. But, you know, it’s the memories that matter, not the things.
When you come back to visit, will you order your namesake ice cream from Babcock Hall?
I hate to say this, but, while I like Bec-Key Lime Pie, I’m much more into chocolate!
And the most important question of all: What will you do with all the red items in your wardrobe?
Half the red in my wardrobe I had before I took this job, so I’m not getting rid of all that. I like red too much.
Published in the Spring 2022 issue