Former University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank passed away Feb. 17 following the announcement of her cancer diagnosis in July of 2022. Blank served as chancellor at UW from 2013 to 2022, according to UW.
Blank’s memorial service, which was open to both campus and local communities, was held March 4 by her husband Hanns and daughter Emily Kuttner at First Congregational United Church of Christ, followed by a reception at Varsity Hall in Union South, according to UW.
Blank is well known for her contributions to UW, most notably her creation of Bucky’s Tuition Promise, the Public History Project and fundraising efforts through the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
Blank’s “All Ways Forward” fundraising campaign, which launched in 2015, raised $4.2 billion, allowing for the creation of more than 300 faculty endowment funds and professorships and 5,000 student scholarships, according to the campaign website.
“Arguably the most important person leading a comprehensive campaign like we had to raise money for UW is the chancellor,” UW Foundation President and CEO Mike Knetter said. “All donors want to feel confidence and trust in organizations that they give money to, and that starts at the top. Blank really set a tone that people can believe in.”
UW professor of botany Katherine McCulloh received the Rebecca Blank Professorship in February, which was created to honor Blank’s contributions to UW, according to UW News.
McCulloh said the funding will support graduate and undergraduate research on cycads, a type of plant that grows in subtropical climates. The funds will also allow students to attend conferences, which are vital career opportunities, McCulloh said.
McCulloh said that Blank inspired her as a researcher and a leader, and her passing just one day after receiving her professorship was bittersweet.
“I am grateful that the award was announced in time for me to have an opportunity to tell her how much she meant to me,” McCulloh said. “We lost a great Badger.”
Knetter said Blank’s campaign allowed for the number of faculty awards created in the history of UW to double in just eight years. It also funded over 5,000 new endowed scholarships, including the Rebecca Blank Great People Scholarship fund, which is a major way for alumni to make a donation to honor her service to UW, Knetter said.
Knetter said Blank was particularly skilled at gaining donor trust due to her pragmatic and decisive nature. Blank was economically sensible in her personal life as well, often opting for fast food over five-star restaurants while on the road on fundraising trips, Knetter said.
“She had a strong moral compass, and she knew what mattered,” Knetter said. “She wasn’t hung up on a lot of the ordinary status symbols.”
Blank also formed the research committee responsible for investigating the history of the Klu Klux Klan at UW in 2018, ultimately leading to UW’s Public History Project titled “Reckoning with our History: UW-Madison’s History of Discrimination and Resistance,” Public History Project director Kacie Lucchini Butcher said.
The project will become a permanent installation in the Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History, which is set to open summer of 2023.
Blank chose to fully examine UW’s history of discrimination and exclusion when the issue came to light, which was testament to commitment to diversity and inclusion at UW, Butcher said.
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“She’s an economist,” Butcher said. “And she had done the math, she’s done the calculation and she’s done a kind of risk-reward analysis … And the rewards of doing it [the Public History Project] and the purpose of doing it was going to outweigh those risks.”
Blank’s willingness to try something new while addressing UW’s controversial history echoed her career-long commitment to stepping outside of the box for the betterment of UW, Butcher said.
Blank was also crucial to campus culture, Butcher said, referencing students dressing as her for Halloween and her personal connection with UW’s mascot, Bucky Badger.
“That doesn’t happen with every chancellor,” Butcher said. “Students also really liked her and viewed her as a kind of campus figure … She was a really special person. I think that is a huge loss for the UW campus.”
Provost John Scholz said in an email statement to The Badger Herald that students can continue to honor Blank’s legacy at UW by taking actions that foster inclusivity and uphold the pillars of the Wisconsin Experience — empathy and humility, relentless curiosity, intellectual confidence and purposeful action.
Scholz said taking advantage of formal and informal education opportunities, participating in research, being involved on campus and locally and networking — especially with those of different backgrounds — can achieve this.
“We honor Becky by continuing to be the best we can be,” Scholz said.