UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank is ready for ‘another 5 years’

September 2, 2018

In 1983, UW-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty tried to recruit a young female professor to be their next postdoctoral fellow, according to then-director Sheldon Danziger.

One of only a few women in the male-dominated field of labor economics at the time, the potential fellow had just finished her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was already emerging as a budding star in the area of poverty economics and its intersection with welfare policy.

The woman, then 26, took a professorship at Princeton instead. She went on to work at two other Midwestern universities and lead a federal Cabinet department.

But her interest in UW-Madison and the surrounding area endured. She spent a fall semester on fellowship where she lived in a Pinckney Street sublet with a lake view. She honeymooned in Mineral Point. She regularly attended conferences on campus and collaborated with UW-Madison economists on research.

Fast forward to a snowy Friday evening in March 2013 when the woman — Rebecca Blank — took a call from the same school that had tried to land her 30 years earlier. This time, though, she accepted an offer she couldn’t refuse: to serve as chancellor of UW-Madison, Wisconsin’s flagship school.

Blank admits she does not remember the 1983 hiring attempt. She was more interested then in securing a tenure-track position, so she may not have paid much attention to UW-Madison’s recruitment effort.

“We knew she was good from the start,” said Danziger, who is now president of the Russell Sage Foundation.

Blank celebrated her five-year anniversary on campus this summer. Her sixth academic year begins Wednesday.

No showboat

The new chancellor arrived in the middle of a political firestorm, with Republican state legislators accusing the state’s public universities of quietly amassing millions in reserve funds while raising tuition on students. Under Gov. Scott Walker’s leadership, lawmakers have cut millions in state money from the University of Wisconsin System, frozen undergraduate tuition and approved legislation shifting power away from faculty and toward the System’s Board of Regents, almost all of whom are appointed by Walker.

Blank, 62, seldom hints at the awkward position she often occupies: trying to please the Regents, her faculty and staff, lawmakers and, of course, the students. In her chapter of a book published earlier this year, however, she lets on that, at least in the beginning of her chancellorship, the controversies were many.

“During the four years I’ve been in this job, at least three of those years have felt like a constant state of crisis, with one difficult issue after another either emerging on campus or coming at us from off campus, each generating substantial press, social media and email attention,” Blank wrote in “Leading Colleges and Universities: Lessons from Higher Education Leaders.”

UW-Madison history professor David McDonald, who served as chairman of the 2013 chancellor search committee, said he couldn’t come up with an answer when asked what moment Blank has most shined in her five years at the helm.

“It’s hard to say because she’s not a showboat,” he said, an observation echoed by more than a dozen UW-Madison faculty, former colleagues, mentors and friends interviewed for this story.

The sense of humility that faculty and former colleagues see in her is also a part of what Blank loves best about the institution she leads.

“(UW-Madison) is an incredibly friendly place, but it’s also just a place that works hard without making a big deal of it,” she said. “People are not here promoting their own egos and their own selves … I don’t have to manage egos the way some of my colleagues in some of the coastal universities do.”

“Midwestern modesty” is ingrained in Blank’s leadership style, though she won’t explicitly say it. Asked to describe her style of leadership in one word, she simply said: “I’m not good at those sorts of word games.”

Early days

Blank’s classmates at Alexander Ramsey High School voted her the girl “most likely to succeed” and “best female student.”

She attended the University of Minnesota, a stone’s throw from her suburban St. Paul high school, because her family could not afford private school tuition.

Blank’s mother and father were the first and only in their families to attend college. Both went on to become Extension agents in Minnesota. Her mother stopped working after Blank’s only sibling, an older brother, was born. Blank’s father spent most of his career in tourism development, promoting northern Minnesota.

Blank worked a number of jobs in high school and college, including a gig at Mister Donut, to pay for her tuition and expenses. She saved on rent by living at home and graduating in three years.

Then it was off to work a couple of years in Chicago for a data firm. She had expected to go on to business school, but her time as a manufacturing consultant shifted her interest to economics research.

She submitted applications to six graduate economic programs, received six acceptance letters and selected MIT.

Graduate students just launching their academic careers often struggle in selecting a focus of study.

Not Blank, recalled Princeton economics professor Henry Farber, who served as Blank’s thesis adviser while at MIT.

“She was absolutely driven by policy problems,” he said. “She wasn’t interested in the idea of economics.”

Poverty expert

Blank’s ability to see the big picture is what propelled her to leadership positions, and nowhere is this better illustrated than her grip on the federal government’s poverty research center program.

UW-Madison has a long history in poverty research. In 1966, the school’s Institute for Research on Poverty became the federal government’s first designated poverty research center.

In the mid-1990s, however, the funding that had gone to UW for decades went up for bid.

Blank, then a professor in Northwestern University’s economics department, applied and won the funding, so the center moved to Chicago.

“She had a really good ability to see what the big picture was that we were telling and refining it,” said Yale economist Joseph Altonji, who worked with Blank at Northwestern in the 1990s.

In 1999, the University of Michigan dangled the deanship of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy to Blank. She accepted, and by 2002, the national poverty center moved to Ann Arbor.

Funding funneled back to UW-Madison in 2016, when the the Institute for Research on Poverty celebrated its 50th anniversary. Blank delivered the keynote address.

Behind the scenes

Ask those close to Blank to describe her personality and a resounding consensus of an ultra-organized and productive person emerges. Half a dozen used the adjective “no-nonsense.”

“She doesn’t waste a word,” said Matt Kussow, executive director of Badger Advocates, an organization founded in 2016 that lobbies for UW-Madison but is not affiliated with the institution.

The pace of her speech is mentioned by almost everyone as an example of her efficiency.

Some draw this back to her days on the high school debate team when she faced a fixed allotment of time to make her points.

“She’s not the type of person that’s going to spend the first 15 minutes shooting the breeze,” Danziger said of how she ran faculty meetings at the Ford school.

Behind her always-diplomatic exterior, when she’s not the face of the university — delivering speeches, cutting ribbons and dancing with Bucky Badger to market the campus — Blank is a warm, kind person who values her family, friends say.

Blank, a Democrat, married Hanns Kuttner, a Republican who works at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank. They avoid political discussions at home and vote to cancel each other out, she said.

They met while Blank served as a senior staff member on the Council of Economic Advisers during the George H.W. Bush administration.

Because their relationship was initially as colleagues, then as friends, Blank does not remember their first date.

“It morphed from a friendship—you know, it was a blurry line,” she said.

They married in July 1994 in Chicago. They have one daughter, Emily, who just graduated from college.

Blank is a baker and makes “great pies,” according to Barbara Wolfe, a longtime UW-Madison economics professor and friend of Blank.

Blank attends every home football game, but admits she can pay better attention when she is watching away games on TV from home.

“(Blank) has a lighter side people don’t see in a professional setting,” Kussow said, recalling attending a basketball game a few years ago when she sang along to “Varsity.”

“She can really belt it out,” he said.

Finalist in 2008

Blank’s chancellorship at UW-Madison almost began in 2008.

She was one of four finalists when the search committee passed her up for Carolyn “Biddy” Martin to lead UW-Madison.

Some UW-Madison faculty say that Blank’s lack of managerial experience at the time hurt her in the 2008 search. Martin had served as Cornell University’s provost for years, while Blank had overseen a single school within a university.

“They wanted managerial experience, so she went and ran the (U.S.) Commerce Department,” UW-Madison economist Tim Smeeding said.

Blank spent four years at the department, including two separate stints as acting secretary of commerce. At one point, she oversaw the Census Bureau.

While a finalist for the UW-Madison search in 2013, Blank said during a campus visit that she had had enough of the political battles in Washington, D.C., implying that she expected there would be less of it at a university than while leading a federal department.

Five years into the job, there’s been no shortage of political battles.

In an interview earlier this summer, Blank recalled the controversies she has weathered with an even, measured tone — except for the turmoil over tenure protections. She is the most animated when talking about this episode, mostly because of the misunderstanding that she says remains to this day.

“I can promise you, you talk to people outside the state, half of them will say Wisconsin doesn’t have tenure anymore because that’s what they read in the newspaper,” she said.

Blank blames the media, but she also chides lawmakers for how quickly the issue unfolded.

In 2015, Wisconsin was the only state with those protections written into state law. Republican lawmakers voted to remove those protections, giving broader authority to university officials to fire tenured faculty. Lawmakers said removing it would bring the UW System more in line with its peers and that faculty would still be protected because Regents would write the protections into their policy.

Several months passed in the time it took campuses to adopt the System’s new rules, panicking faculty and prompting other institutions to poach some sought-after professors away from Wisconsin.

What Blank called “an existential crisis,” Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, called “a big kerfuffle.”

“Now a few years have passed, and there’s really nothing to it,” said Murphy, who has chaired the Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities for four years.

“She’s got a lot of hats to wear and a lot of people to keep somewhat happy,” Murphy said. “It’s not an easy job.”

What’s next?

Blank knows how long the average college president’s tenure spans. According to a 2016 study by the American Council on Education, college presidents typically stay for 6 1/2 years.

It’s even shorter for presidents of public institutions, Blank brings up in the interview, then waits for the inevitable question: So what’s next for you?

“Another five years,” she automatically responded, launching into a long explanation about the importance of continuity in leadership at a big institution.

“Search committees will frequently ask candidates, ‘Would you plan to stay 10 years?’ and the answer should always be yes, if all works out well,” she said. “I gave them the answer that if this works out I would anticipate being here for 10 years. No one can predict the future, but this is a job and an institution to which I’m very committed.”

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