On a warm, windy April day, senior Akshay Kalra x’23 ditched his art history class — sorry, prof! — for what he considered a higher calling.
Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin had rallied Badgers for a day of community service — dubbed the first-annual Bucky’s Big Event — and Kalra didn’t want to miss it. That’s how he found himself somewhat improbably side by side with Mnookin, lopping invasive buckthorn from the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.
“Public service is so important and such a big part of the UW tradition,” said Kalra, of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. “The fact that she’s embracing the Wisconsin Idea like this bodes well for her tenure.”
Bucky’s Big Event was just one of many special events during a week that celebrated Mnookin’s formal installation as UW–Madison’s 30th leader. The culmination of the week, a vibrant, majestic investiture ceremony steeped in centuries-old traditions, brought luminaries from around the country to campus on April 14.
For additional coverage of the investiture events, including stories, photos, and videos, visit the UW News site.
“This is a new chapter in the UW–Madison story,” said UW System president Jay Rothman, who called Mnookin “the right leader at the right time” while welcoming more than 400 people at the Hamel Music Center and others watching on live stream.
It was a week that mixed formality with fun. There was pomp and circumstance befitting one of the country’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. And there was lightness and levity — cherished Badger traits as well. Forming an indelible campus memory, thousands of people flooded Library Mall following the investiture ceremony for a community picnic that turned into a giant, sunshine-fueled party.
An investiture ceremony is an opportunity to both usher in a new era of leadership and celebrate an institution, including its people. The week began with a lively recognition event for hundreds of second- and third-shift employees on the floor of the Kohl Center. There was food (brats and hot dogs), music (the UW Marching Band), and polka dancing (nice moves, Bucky!).
“We’re feeling very appreciated right now,” said Martha Gonzalez, a second-shift custodial lead at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.
Mnookin hit the Kohl Center stage at 11:30 p.m., giving remarks in both English and Spanish. She took selfies with people until almost midnight. (Not a big deal, she said. “This is easier for me than a 7 a.m. meeting.”)
The next morning, Mnookin joined Ho-Chunk Nation president Marlon WhiteEagle for the raising of the Ho-Chunk Nation flag at Bascom Hall. Bucky’s Big Event followed, with Badgers flexing their volunteering muscles at eight community sites.
“This is a wonderful way to combine important events,” said Janay Walters, a research intern on campus who helped create a new walking trail at Governor Nelson State Park. “Service is such an essential part to any successful organization.”
A series of campus events brought out diverse crowds. During a live cooking demonstration for students at Union South that highlighted Wisconsin food traditions, Mnookin hand-grated potatoes and conversed with chef Luke Zahm ’03 of The Driftless Café in Viroqua, Wisconsin. (Her go-to cuisine? Middle Eastern fusion.) Nobel Prize–winning astrophysicist and UCLA professor Andrea Ghez, a close friend of Mnookin, headlined an academic symposium titled “Discovery Past, Present, and Future: Black Holes, Neutrinos, and Life in Our Galaxy” that packed Union South’s Marquee Theater.
At the center of the week’s festivities was the investiture ceremony, one of the oldest traditions in academia. Usually held during the first year of new leadership, the ceremony confers the authority and symbols of the office to a new academic leader.
Mnookin, formerly dean of the UCLA School of Law, officially began her tenure as UW–Madison chancellor last August. She told the crowd at the Hamel Center that she was “grateful and humbled” to be given the opportunity to lead such an incredible university, adding she was “acutely aware that I stand on the shoulders of so very, very many others.”
Mnookin extolled the virtues of the Wisconsin Idea, saying it is “both anchor and propeller, keeping us grounded to our mission while creating that multiplier effect that allows us to do truly great things at scale. And it must remain at the heart of our goals and aspirations for our beloved university.”
The ceremony began with a procession of delegates from higher education, elected office, UW System leadership, the UW System Board of Regents, faculty, staff, and student leadership, all in academic regalia.
More than 50 universities and colleges sent delegates, including Harvard University, represented by Robert H. Mnookin, the Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the chancellor’s father.
Wisconsin governor Tony Evers ’73, MS’76, PhD’86 spoke, as did four former UW–Madison chancellors, three in person (David Ward MS’62, PhD’63, Donna Shalala, and John Wiley MS’65, PhD’68) and one by video (Biddy Martin PhD’85).
Shalala, chancellor from 1988 to 1993 and the first woman to serve in the role, drew laughs as she scanned the audience for her “best friend” from when she was on campus, Bucky. “He was the only person that never talked back to me,” she said.
Keynote speaker Michael Schill, president of Northwestern University, recruited Mnookin and her husband, political scientist Joshua Foa Dienstag, to join the UCLA faculty nearly 20 years ago. Confidantes who talk weekly, Schill and Mnookin now both lead Big Ten universities.
“The Wisconsin Idea is both anchor and propeller, keeping us grounded to our mission while creating that multiplier effect that allows us to do truly great things at scale,” Mnookin said.
Schill said the importance of higher education, both in educating the next generation and as an engine for discovery and innovation, could not be greater, yet the challenges are more difficult than they have been in decades.
“I can’t remember another time when we’ve been under the microscope so intensely,” he said. “So many of our nation’s problems are playing out on our campuses today.”
One of the biggest challenges, he said, is the growing lack of trust in higher education. No one is better positioned to negotiate these challenges and opportunities than Mnookin, he added.
“She listens, she synthesizes the views of her community, all the while guided by an amazingly strong moral and academic compass. She is the perfect person to lead you through a period that requires the very best in a leader.”
Karen Walsh ’81, president of the UW System Board of Regents, placed a “Numen Lumen” medallion, bearing the official seal and motto of UW–Madison, on Mnookin’s shoulders and formally installed her as chancellor. Mnookin will wear the medallion — newly recast by engineering students — at commencement and convocation events going forward.
In her remarks, Mnookin told stories of UW–Madison inventors, researchers, and pathbreakers stories, she said, that illustrate the “multiplier effect” of the university’s transformational work. She spoke of a young researcher named Tom Brock who would later become a UW–Madison professor. During a visit to Yellowstone National Park, Brock discovered a strain of bacteria in the park’s hot springs that no one had ever described. Many decades later, his discovery would be fundamental to the development of the PCR test for COVID-19. At the time, though, Brock said he was “just trying to find out what kind of weird critters were living in that boiling water.”
“Which strikes me as a very ‘Wisconsin’ thing to say!” Mnookin shared. “Then, as now, the University of Wisconsin–Madison is simultaneously exceptional and modest, driven not by a need for glory but by a dedication to excellence that is rooted in and grows from a trio of core commitments: to curiosity, to collaboration, and to service.”
Afterward, Liam McLean ’23, senior class president, said the investiture ceremony gave him new perspective on the university’s place in higher education.
“I teared up a little during some of the moments,” he said. “To have so many people from the Badger community in the same room really made me realize how much UW–Madison is at the forefront of so much that is happening in the country and in the world.”
Following the ceremony, Mnookin walked with friends and family members, including her husband and children, Sophia and Isaac, to Library Mall, where the community picnic unfolded amid balloons, dancing, and tunes provided by the UW Marching Band.
“How can you not come to a picnic on Library Mall on a day like today?” asked Bruce Beihoff ’77 of Madison, who called his experience on campus life-shaping. “I’ve always felt great about this university. This makes me feel even better.”
The picnic served as the big reveal for the new Babcock Dairy ice cream flavor named for the chancellor — Mnookie Dough. She took her first bite at the picnic and dubbed it dee-licious. “The caramel is a nice touch.”
Throughout the weeklong celebration, Mnookin expressed gratitude and awe. Following a blockbuster panel that featured six faculty and alumni discussing what motivates them, Mnookin said their insights outstripped the already high expectations she had for the event.
“Every one of your talks was thoughtful, inspiring, exhilarating,” she said. “It makes me very, very proud to be here and really inspired that all of you are Badgers and that I get to be one now, too.” •
Doug Erickson writes for University Communications.
Published in the Summer 2023 issue