The last finalist candidate who could become University of Wisconsin’s next chancellor visited campus Wednesday to lay out her priorities of maintaining funding for the university, leveraging new educational technologies and expanding community outreach.
Rebecca Blank currently serves as acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, where she is responsible for a dozen federal agencies with a nearly $10 billion total budget.
However, Blank said she now wants to leave the ubiquitous political battles in government and return to the realm of academia.
“I’ve been there long enough, and I’m sort of ready to come back home again,” Blank said, adding her time in Commerce reaffirmed these feelings of nostalgia.
The Minnesota native said she has been around big public universities a large part of her life, teaching undergraduate, graduate and professional students alike.
Blank is no stranger to UW. She was a finalist for the chancellor position five years ago and was a visiting fellow at Wisconsin’s Department of Economics and Institute for Research on Poverty in 1985. She began her day in Madison by answering student, faculty and community members’ questions during a public reception at the Chazen Museum of Art.
Afterward, Blank fielded media questions ranging from rising tuition rates and fundraising efforts, to addressing labor licensing controversies and educational trends in the digital age.
As someone with a rich background in economics, Blank said if chosen to be UW’s new chancellor, her objective would be to ensure the university has the funding to continue to operate at a high level.
“The first priority for any chancellor has to be dealing with the balance between getting the budget of this university together and making sure there is access for all students, particularly students in the state,” Blank said.
Raising tuition among instate students is the last place UW should look to increase revenues, Blank said. She did not rule out the possibility of allowing out-of-state tuition to be more competitive with peer institutions, but advocated for more outside fundraising campaigns from the Wisconsin Alumni Association and UW Foundation.
While Blank said she would love to believe the state will give more funding to UW, she acknowledged the university cannot count on this and taxpayer funding will likely continue to plummet.
“That’s one of the sad facts of virtually every public university in the country,” she said.
Blank has switched between educational and bureaucratic positions for years. She was a an economics professor at Princeton and Northwestern, director for the Joint Center for Poverty Research, and a member of former President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. Blank also ran University of Michigan’s School for Public Policy for nine years.
UW’s Chancellor Search and Screen Committee Chair David McDonald said it would be difficult to miss a candidate as qualified and Blank when selecting finalists for the position.
“She had distinguished herself in every area of priority for a chancellor,” McDonald said.
Blank did not comment on the Adidas lawsuit and Chancellor David Ward’s refusal to break UW’s contract with Palermo’s Pizza because since she believed it would be inappropriate to comment on issues with which she is unfamiliar. However, Blank recognized the significance of university contacts and controversies surrounding labor rights.
“These are issues you take seriously,” she said. “You look into them, you make sure you have all of your facts straight and then you have to make a decision. That decision may be the next contract instead of the one you’re currently related to because when you sign a contract, it means something.”
Sam Klepfer, a Student Labor Action Coalition member and junior history major, said Blank seemed dedicated to labor issues and said she would encourage SLAC to push her to become more involved with the Adidas and Palermo’s controversies.
UW System spokesperson David Giroux said UW System President Kevin Reilly and the members of the search and screen committee will interview all four finalist candidates Friday. He added the full Board of Regents will confirm the new UW chancellor at its April 4 and 5 meeting in La Crosse.