Last week, the University of Wisconsin-Madison community was informed of the departure of Chancellor Rebecca Blank to Northwestern University this summer after nine years serving as their leader. Blank will be the first female to serve as Northwestern University’s president.
Blank was tenured within Northwestern’s economics department and was director of the Joint Center of Poverty Research before joining UW-Madison as chancellor.
“I have many connections with Northwestern and am excited about this new opportunity,” Blank said in an Oct. 11 university news release.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel speculates that her leave likely comes with a large increase in salary. They report that Blank was paid just above $606,000 in 2020, the highest paid chancellor in the entire UW System.
Last summer, the search to replace UW System interim president Tommy Thompson began.
Former governor of Wisconsin, Thompson took on this role in July 2020 after the search to find a permanent replacement for his predecessor, Ray Cross, failed. Thompson was chosen by Board of Regents President Andrew Petersen because of “his legacy of bringing people together and finding common ground.”
Both positions will become vacant at the beginning of summer 2022, leaving room for uncertainty for the future of UW and its flagship school in terms of leadership.
Apart from Blank and Thompson, there are also five recently vacant leadership positions from the other 12 UW schools.
UW Spokesperson Meredith McGlone ensures that these departures are not at all correlated.
“Fortunately, Chancellor Blank and her team have placed the university on very stable footing,” McGlone said.
University of Wisconsin-Madison is at its highest graduation rate, has 4,000 students under Bucky’s Tuition Promise program as well as the highest variety in diversity in all of Madison history.
“It was always my goal to leave this university stronger than when I came and I believe that together we have achieved that,” Blank stated.
The search for both positions will be overseen by the UW System and Board of Regents with more details to follow as they become available.
“In the event that [Blank’s] successor has not yet been chosen by that point, an interim chancellor may be named to ensure continuity until the successor arrives,” McGlone said.
In an interview conducted by the Wisconsin State Journal with consultant Anne Coyle from the search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, Coyle said that “candidates may view the jobs together as a real opportunity to bring new ideas to the table.”
Coyle acknowledges that the search must comply with a long list of rules and regulations since they are working with the state government and have a much smaller budget covered than a typical search for a private institution.
Concerns are shared by some, including previous UW System president Katharine Lyall. With six years of experience, she said to the Wisconsin State Journal that the departure of both figures “complicates the choreography a little bit.”
“It just adds another dimension to the search for the UW System president to find someone who can attract good candidates for the Madison position,” Lyall said.
Retired UW-La Crosse professor Joe Heim expressed concern over how a potential candidate’s perspective may change based on UW System’s recent history of budget battles, political challenges and tenure changes that drew national attention.
“I wonder what kind of message it sends to applicants that both positions are vacant,” Heim said. “It might spark a little hesitancy on the part of top candidates.”
“Regardless of who the next chancellor is, we hope they will share our goals of promoting student voices and making campus an equitable and inclusive environment,” the Associated Students of Madison said in an Oct. 11 statement.