Chancellor Rebecca Blank will leave the University of Wisconsin after the 2021-22 school year and become the president of Northwestern University.
This decision surprised many, including University Committee member Lauren Papp.
“On the one hand, I was thrilled for her to have this opportunity and also at the same time, disappointed that I wouldn’t have next year to work with her,” Papp said.
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Blank has led UW since 2013, according to the UW News page. During this time, she continuously proved her strong leadership skills, especially in the pandemic, according to Papp.
As a University Committee member, Papp facilitates communication between staff and campus leaders. Papp joined the committee in early 2020, which let her observe Blank’s leadership skills in action, she said.
“I have seen her really strive to keep those lines of communication open,” Papp said. “She welcomes input and takes shared governance, faculty, staff and student input very seriously.”
But Teaching Assistants’ Association Political Education Committee member Jack Phillips said lack of communication was one of Blank’s biggest flaws.
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She refused to meet with the BIPOC Coalition during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and onward. During a virtual meeting, she rejected two of the BIPOC Coalition’s ten demands to improve the experience of students of color on the UW campus.
The BIPOC Coalition declined to comment on Blank’s departure.
Blank regrets this lack of communication, citing the limitations of meeting virtually as a complicating factor, she said in a recent interview with The Badger Herald.
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The BIPOC Coalition is not the only student organization that has had difficulties with Blank in the past, Phillips said. Blank also abruptly canceled meetings to discuss COVID-19 policies with the Associated Students of Madison, according to a tweet from former ASM Chair Matthew Mitnick.
Blank defended her decision and said ASM passed several important motions in early September without much communication with the UW administration, “setting the tone” for the rest of the year.
Office of the Secretary of the Faculty Chair Eric Sandgren said Blank’s public persona enhanced her leadership. Simple things like going to Badger games made Blank relatable to students and publicized her devotion to UW, Sandgren said.
“She has this public image of being quirky, like [she’s] everyone’s friend, but the moment anyone has any sort of criticism, she just hides,” Phillips said.
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On a more serious level, Blank’s hard-working attitude helped faculty maintain positive attitudes during the lockdown, Sandgren said.
“More than anything, [Blank] helped us maintain morale so that we recognize that there’s someone out there fighting for us,” Sandgren said.
Another notable accomplishment during Blank’s chancellorship is Bucky’s Tuition Promise — a financial aid program that offers free tuition to low-income students, according to the Office of Student Financial Aid website.
This program enabled countless disadvantaged students to get a college education and publicized Blank’s commitment to higher education, Sandgren said.
But Blank is not always consistent on this front and her handling of Act 55 shows this, Phillips said. Act 55 was passed by the Wisconsin legislature under Scott Walker, limiting ASM’s influence on campus policy and effectively destroying shared governance, Phillips said. While Blank had the power to push back against this new legislature, she did not do so in a meaningful way, prioritizing money instead, according to Phillips.
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“She was running UW-Madison, a public institution of higher education as if it were a for-profit corporation,” Phillips said.
As a TAA Political Education Committee member, Phillips works to educate graduate student workers on various political issues and help the student body push back against legislation that might negatively impact them.
Under Blank’s leadership, there has been a lot of work to do on this front, Phillips said.
Sandgren thinks many of Blank’s critics fail to realize how well-regarded UW is both in the state of Wisconsin and throughout the world. This reputation has only been strengthened by Blank’s leadership, Sandgren said
“I know how the world views UW-Madison,” Sandgren said. “They know it’s an incredible powerhouse. I was so confused to hear what people are criticizing about it.”
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While UW has not yet announced plans to replace Blank, Papp has high hopes for the next chancellor. According to Papp, Blank’s prior accomplishments will make it easy for her successor to adjust to the leadership position.
Thanks to Blank’s leadership, UW already has robust education, research and public outreach programs, Papp said. UW has also seen a recent increase in undergraduate applications, resulting in the largest freshman class in the school’s history, according to the UW News page.
“We all have benefitted already and will continue to feel the positive impact of Blank’s strong leadership,” Papp said. “I have to imagine [UW] is in the best possible position for a new leader to come in and make their mark as well.”
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But Phillips is less optimistic. The next chancellor will have a lot of work ahead of them to undo the damage Blank has done to UW, according to Phillips.
To avoid doing more harm to the campus, the new chancellor will have to revert the status of shared governance to what it used to be prior to Act 55, Phillips said. The new chancellor must also rebuild a relationship with the BIPOC Coalition and other student organizations that represent marginalized communities on campus, Phillips added.
“No matter what happens, even if we get someone who’s a good person, the position has been so corrupted that whoever fills that role is going to have to actively work against their own best interests,” Phillips said.