While the announcement of Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s departure from the University of Wisconsin-Madison may have been a surprise to some, she believes that the time was right for her to leave the institution.
“There's only certain things I can do here on Bascom Hill,” Blank explained.
In her last annual address to campus newspapers, Blank spoke with The Daily Cardinal, The Black Voice and The Badger Herald Friday afternoon, noting that several factors played into her decision to accept her next position as president of Northwestern.
“There is a sense that in nine years in one job, that you get a little stale. You get a little jaded about some things,” she stated. “I've stayed longer at this job by quite a bit than any other job I've had, and it's been a wonderful place.”
Blank also described the contentious relationship between the university and the state of Wisconsin, highlighting that UW-Madison is “deeply micromanaged by the state.”
In Blank’s soon-to-be nine years at UW-Madison, the university continues to face an uphill battle with the state legislature regarding cuts in state funding, UW’s aging infrastructure, the removal of statutory tenure protections and its mask mandates. These issues culminated in tensions that, as Blank expressed, simply don’t affect private institutions like Northwestern in the same way.
“I think it's time for someone else to take [the legislature] on. You get tired of fighting the same fights again and again,” Blank said.
Blank also discussed recent concerns expressed by the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) about the use of UW Housing’s Eagle Heights Apartments as isolation housing for students that test positive for COVID-19, stating that she would feel comfortable residing in the facility.
“We have absolutely no evidence there’s any public health danger,” Blank said. “We’ve got it set up in a way that really guards against that.”
The chancellor also touched on the removal of Chamberlin Rock, stating that while local media covered the issue in a fair and informed way, national publications were less tactful. This past September, Blank wrote a blog post explaining the university’s decision to remove the rock due to its racist symbolism as well as a letter to The New York Times regarding her disappointment with their coverage of UW-Madison’s decision.
“I was more than a little annoyed at this New York Times person who, with no conversation with anyone here on campus, did not recognize the fact that we went through a nine month process,” she said. “We had large conversations; we brought in all the stakeholders; we made a set of decisions that I think, once they were made, didn't generate a lot of controversy on campus.”
Reflecting back on her tenure, Blank is especially proud of the strides of Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which grants free undergraduate tuition to hundreds of Wisconsin students annually, as well as record-breaking class sizes and increased diversity on campus.
“Changing culture has to happen on the ground,” Blank said, highlighting administrative and campus community efforts such as the TOP support initiative intended to diversify UW-Madison’s faculty that have aided campus climate in her view. “It doesn’t happen fast but I do feel we’ve got the structures in place and we’re having the right conversations.”
With Blank set to leave UW-Madison this summer, questions remain about her successor.
“They get to figure it out on their own,” Blank said about the future of UW-Madison and its leadership. “It’s not my job to give very much advice to my successor.”
Ultimately, Blank hopes that candidates for the position bring ideas on how the university goes about addressing issues relating to student life, sustainability on-campus and diversity and inclusion, building on already existing mechanisms and creating new ones.
“I would hope that whatever candidates they interview, whether [they ask questions] around student life or students of color, whether it's around sustainability on campus, that it's someone who comes with some commitments and some ideas,” Blank said. “The number of things we have going on and the number of issues — don’t throw it all out. There may be changes that a new person will have ideas about, but build on what's been done. Because there is some foundation.”
“We don't want to start fresh.”