All around the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the leaves are highlighting a change in the seasons as students bundle up for the dropping temperatures and gradually adapt to their fall schedules. Especially with the return of in-person classes, students flooding throughout campus during passing periods, and game days featuring droves of fans in the streets eager to get to Camp Randall by “Jump Around,” we, as students, are finally given the opportunity to settle into a routine. However, what do we do when the face of our university announces she is changing her colors?
It was released earlier this month that Chancellor Rebecca Blank would be departing from UW-Madison at the end of the school year to assume the position as Northwestern’s first female president. To many, Blank is recognized for her innovative steps in enhancing the student experience at UW. By cutting the graduation gaps between white students and students of color, enabling more in-state students to attend with zero tuition under Bucky’s Tuition Promise and encouraging an environment of high vaccination rates - there is no denying that Blank has a quintessential role in our identity as a university nationwide.
Yet, as a current UW-Madison sophomore, I feel like I never really got to know the chancellor, or her initiatives, beyond her pandemic mandates. Deliberate weekly COVID-19 updates on Instagram or vlog-style announcements in full red attire were the only way we could get a sense of the chancellor’s role in our individual experiences.
Although it is unrealistic to expect the face of a population of 47,936 to have distinct connections with all students, it feels that the class of 2024 is the forgotten class. A cohort that is bonded by resilience in adapting to such a large environment under the scope of a pandemic, the university is on a train propelled forward without acknowledging the lack of guidance that we had last year as freshmen.
So where was our convocation? Where was our welcome back? In many ways we are a symbol of inconsistent COVID-19 policies, dorm lockdowns, high spikes in positive tests and the disturbing concept of spitting into a tube in a room full of strangers — the middle child of the badger family if you will.
As a student residing in Witte residence hall my freshman year, I experienced the Witte and Sellery lockdowns first hand. These dorm closures undeniably highlighted the lack of communication between students and Blank’s administration. Emails came abruptly two hours before lockdown started, giving students no time to grocery shop or mentally comprehend the chaos that would ensue. I still have distinct memories of abandoned Witte hallways and the rush of students looking for apartments due to fears of permanent dorm closures.
Essentially, the chancellor's poor correspondence with many of the initial COVID-19 policies and subsequent memes of Blank as the university watchdog on Badger Barstool have limited my lens on the real policies that the chancellor has tended to.
In furthering my distaste, I was extremely disappointed with the miscommunication on scheduling the first day of classes during the Jewish high holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Although students were informed of this scheduling conflict in the spring of last year, I and many of my fellow Jewish peers were torn between attending classes or attending synagogue on their first day of school.
In attending Hillel services on Monday, Sept. 6 — the first night of Rosh Hashanah — an appearance by the chancellor was far from expected. Standing as my first and only in-person citing of the chancellor, Blank made a short apology to the service of, at most, 20 students, feeling more like a disconnected address than an interaction.
Blank’s tone was formal but quick. She was probably in the room for five minutes. For those who did not attend, they would probably never know that Chancellor Blank had made an effort to meet with Jewish students at Hillel that night. Nevertheless, her appearance was not a genuine meeting — more like a box to be checked off on her to-do list.
I acknowledge that it is difficult to decipher what part of a chancellor’s administration makes these kinds of decisions and how easy it is to point fingers at the face of it all. For the next chancellor, I do not know if individual accomplishments will matter as much as adding on to the policy legacy that Blank has left.
However, I do think the future chancellor needs to make more of an effort to communicate with students, explaining both their role and policy processes. They should be more involved in understanding student life on campus and making up for the time lost due to COVID.
I admit that I was taken back to see Becky Blank engulfed in a new colored pantsuit, head to toe in deep purple on Northwestern’s Instagram. But in reflecting upon my experience, I am indifferent to her leaving because I knew Blank strictly through a digital lens under the backdrop of a pandemic.
To the new face of the university — I implore you to make more of an outreach to students.
Madison Targum is a sophomore studying journalism with a certificate in digital studies. Do you think Chancellor Blank suffered from communication issues during the pandemic? Do you agree that current sophomores are the forgotten class? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.