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UW-Madison Chancellor: Polarization among major threats to campus

Rebecca Blank is leaving the university in May to become president of Northwestern University

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Rebecca Blank stands at a podium while speaking. She wears a white face mask and a red jacket.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank looks up at a screen during a presentation at a Board of Regents meeting Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, at UW-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Outgoing University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank cited lagging state support, a lack of administrative autonomy and increasing political divisions as major challenges facing Wisconsin’s flagship university during a fiery speech to the UW Board of Regents Thursday.

Blank began what will be one of her last presentations to the board by touting major accomplishments during her nine-year tenure at the state’s largest campus. Those included increased enrollment, growing research activity and a private fundraising campaign that netted $4.2 billion.

But Blank said changes need to happen at the state and UW System levels in order to ensure future success of UW-Madison. In particular, Blank criticized the campus’s inability to borrow money for building renovations or new construction without the approval of the state Legislature.

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“This complete lack of control over our capital assets creates serious difficulties, particularly at a $3.6 billion organization whose reputation in part rests upon its scientific and educational facilities,” Blank said.

Rebecca Blank
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank speaks at a Board of Regents meeting Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, at UW-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

She said UW-Madison is working to phase out an aging humanities education building by moving academic departments to other parts of campus.

“I dare you to tell me I’m going to get the state Legislature to fund an art department building and a music department building,” Blank said. “Yet I have to move these places. We’ve got to build another space or find another space for these units.”

Blank also pointed to the UW System Administration office and UW Board of Regents as sources of excessive regulations and reporting that don’t make sense for a university far larger than other state campuses.

Blank cited a regent policy that requires board members to approve any contract worth more than $1 million and said nearly every contract between the university and contractors is worth more than that.

“This, at a minimum, adds a month to the process,” Blank said. “It occasionally adds more, and it’s led us to lose out on a variety of industry contracts that we would otherwise have gotten.”

The nine-year freeze on undergraduate tuition also drew criticism from Blank, who noted it was a symptom of growing political divisiveness in Wisconsin facing state universities.

“This polarization is extremely dangerous,” Blank said. “It can threaten not just the funding from the state but the federal funding that we rely on as well. Some of those funds require state matches, require state support.”

Attendees of Thursday’s UW Board of Regents meeting gave Blank a standing ovation after she wrapped up her speech.

She will step down as chancellor of UW-Madison in May when she becomes president of the private Big Ten peer institution Northwestern University in Illinois.

Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board. WPR is headquartered at Vilas Hall.

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