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UW–Madison’s Next Chapter

New chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin crafts a “collective vision” for the university’s future.

Photo portrait of Jennifer Mnookin

Mnookin: “Nearly everyone I’ve met shares a deep sense of pride in this university.”

Jennifer L. Mnookin started her job as UW–Madison chancellor on August 4, and she wasted little time immersing herself in Badger culture. She served Babcock ice cream at an all-campus party on Bascom Hill, posed for pictures with her new friend Bucky Badger, and scheduled listening sessions with faculty, staff, alumni, student groups, legislators, tribal leaders, and community members. Mnookin also took time to tell On Wisconsin about her unique approach to creating a vision for the UW’s future.

How are you adapting to life at UW–Madison after 17 years at UCLA?

It’s been an exciting first few months, a whirlwind but wonderful. I’ve been soaking in as much as I can about our university, our broader community, and the state. That’s involved many meetings with faculty, staff, students, and alums, and opportunities to do things like meet with fruit farmers who partner with one of our agricultural research stations, hold a baby pig at a county fair, and start to meet community leaders and legislators in Madison and across the state. Provost Karl Scholz has teased me that every time he asks me, “How’s it going?” I respond with some enthusiastic version of “Great!” and then share with him some interesting tidbit that I’ve just learned about this amazing university.

What’s so striking is that nearly everyone I’ve met shares a deep sense of pride in this university. Though we might sometimes have different ideas about priorities, virtually everyone does want to see us continue to grow and thrive, and I’ve already benefited from hearing a variety of thoughtful perspectives about UW–Madison’s next chapter.

I’ve also been grateful for the many suggestions about how my husband and I should best embrace our first winter in Wisconsin. I’m hearing that lots of layers are even more important than the perfect winter coat! (I still do have a little time before I actually need that winter wardrobe, right?)

What are your top priorities for your first year at the UW?

My top priority right now is to listen and learn. The best vision for the university’s next chapter isn’t going to emerge from a 10-point list from on high; it’s going to grow out of building a genuinely collective vision for the university’s future. I’ve been asking everyone I meet two questions: What is working well here? And where do you see the most meaningful opportunities for change?

I want to hear ideas that are feasible and concrete, and I also want to hear ideas that are ambitious, creative, and innovative.

I am deeply committed to making sure UW–Madison is a place where we can discuss everything — the ideas we strongly agree with and the ideas we strongly disagree with. That’s sifting and winnowing, and it’s part of what both academic freedom and freedom of speech are all about. At the same time, I want to make sure our students feel safe and supported and know that they belong here even when they’re in discussions with classmates who might have very different worldviews. Both the university as a place of vibrant and sometimes challenging intellectual exchange, and the university as a space of belonging for those who are with us, whatever their identities, backgrounds, or political perspectives, are very important to me.

How do you see UW–Madison leveraging its strengths to make a difference in the world?

I’ve spent my academic career at top public universities, and they all have a mission to make a difference in the world — but here at UW–Madison, that mission is even a bit stronger and more foundational to our identity and sense of purpose. There are several reasons, I think, that we’ve been able to build this culture and to engage in real-world problem-solving in an energetic way.

The first is our dedication to working across disciplines to solve complex problems. We have veterinarians working with physicians, pharmacists, and engineers, for example, on research related to animal health that also has major implications for human health in areas like cancer treatment and animal–human disease transmission. Cross-disciplinary work can be enormously challenging, but we know that bringing creative researchers together across disciplines to work on critical problems can spark extraordinary discovery and innovation. There’s a serious interest in thinking across here, and that’s a great thing.

Related to this is a second important value, the Wisconsin Idea. Our commitment to public service shapes the way we teach and drives many of the crosscurrents that make our research enterprise extraordinarily broad, deep, and excellent. As we approach our 175th anniversary next year, we have an opportunity to celebrate the Wisconsin Idea in a way that further builds UW–Madison as a national and global model for what a great public university can be.

Finish this sentence: “I’ll have a brat, cheese curds, and …”

A scoop of Babcock Dairy’s orange custard chocolate chip!

Published in the Winter 2022 issue

Tags: administration, chancellor, Public service, Research, women

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