Rebecca Blank, who led the University of Wisconsin-Madison as chancellor for nearly a decade until spring of 2022, died Friday of cancer. She was 67.
Blank, a labor economist, oversaw the state’s largest university through the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and contended with political headwinds from Wisconsin’s state Legislature including funding cuts, an in-state tuition freeze and the removal of faculty tenure protections from state law.
She left UW-Madison in May of last year to become the first female president of Northwestern University, a private institution in Evanston, Illinois. But Blank stepped down in July 2022 before she could officially start that job, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Blank moved back to Wisconsin to receive treatment at the UW-Madison’s Carbone Cancer Center, and she died near Madison with family by her side, according to updates from the university.
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In a campus-wide email, current UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, a legal scholar who was appointed by the regents as Blank’s replacement, described her predecessor as “equal parts inspiring and deeply pragmatic.”
Blank’s “boundless energy … was fueled, I understand, by the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, and Diet Coke she’d often bring for lunch — along with the occasional slice of her favorite German Chocolate Cake, made right here on campus,” Mnookin wrote.
Born in Columbia, Missouri, Blank got her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and later earned a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Much of her research focused on how policies could counter poverty, and she advised multiple presidential administrations, having served on the Council of Economic Advisors under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Later, she served as both deputy secretary and acting secretary of commerce under then-President Barack Obama.
In a tweet Sunday, Obama praised Blank’s work in his administration as “just one part of her extraordinary life”
“Whether in government or academia, she devoted her career to reducing inequality and increasing opportunities for others, and made everyone around her better,” the former president wrote.
Blank was someone who “tirelessly fought the good fight,” UW-Madison’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Lawrence Berger said.
“Her pathbreaking scholarship informed actionable policies for reducing poverty and inequality, for which she fiercely advocated in her various government and nongovernmental roles,” Berger, who previously directed UW-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty, said in a statement released by the university.
Earlier in her career, Blank taught at Princeton University and MIT. She eventually became the second woman to earn tenure from Northwestern’s economics department, according to The Daily Northwestern.
At UW-Madison, Blank also oversaw the creation of Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which provides free tuition and fees for Wisconsin students from families with an adjusted gross income at $65,000 a year or less.
In an April 2022 exit interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, Blank described the university’s fight to retain faculty after Republican lawmakers voted in 2015 to remove tenure protections from state law. Although UW regents responded by adopting system-wide tenure policies which Blank described as “equivalent of every one of our major peers,” Blank told WPR’s “The Morning Show” that the flagship university’s reputation had already taken a hit.
“The result in that year was that everyone around the country having heard that Wisconsin had gotten rid of tenure — not true,” she said, adding that it prompted a “raid” by other institutions on UW-Madison’s talent.
“Almost 20 percent of our faculty over those two years had outside offers,” Blank told WPR. “We could have been in great trouble had we lost more of them. In the years since then, that has stopped entirely. We’ve had virtually no outside offers, and those that we’ve had, we’ve won well over 80 percent of them. So we’re in very strong shape, both attracting and retaining our faculty right now.”
Blank also defended furloughs and other cost-saving measures imposed by the university in 2020, saying she believed there was “no choice” in the face of what UW-Madison officials forecast as a $100 million budget shortfall because of the pandemic. The university did not impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, although it said at least 90 percent of the campus population was fully vaccinated by September 2021. Later, in November 2021, UW-Madison announced that all of its employees would need to get the vaccine because of a federal order applying to federal government contractors.
In 2014, Blank worked with graduating seniors to once again start holding the spring commencement ceremony in Camp Randall, the first time graduation had been held in the massive football stadium in more than 20 years.
“No other job in the world would let me lead an institution with its own marching band, sailing club, mascot (I’m going to miss Bucky), and ice cream flavors,” Blank wrote in a farewell blog post after announcing her resignation. “In no other job do you get to address 50,000 people in Camp Randall on graduation day when they are all in a happy mood and can’t wait to hear what you have to say.”
Blank is survived by her husband, Hanns Kuttner, and daughter, Emily. UW-Madison has announced an endowed professorship in her honor and the university is planning a memorial service.
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