Students and faculty were shocked and surprised when Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced on Oct. 11 she will be leaving University of Wisconsin-Madison at the end of the 2021-22 academic year to become the first female president of Northwestern University. Blank’s departure opens the door for a new chancellor to govern UW-Madison, offering a potential new philosophy and perspective for the campus community.
“Going through my head at the time was, who in their right mind would actually want this job with all of the challenges,” said William Tracy, professor of Agronomy and faculty member on the 2012 Search and Screen Committee. “I’m a Becky Blank fan. I think she’s given all of what she’s had to work with. I think she’s done a great job and was definitely the top candidate for me.”
Currently, Blank has the second-longest tenure of any current leader of a public Big Ten university. During her eight years with the UW-Madison, she created many beneficial programs like Bucky’s Tuition Promise, guaranteeing free tuition to in-state students with income less than $60,000.
The university’s graduation rates are at record highs. Undergraduate applications have doubled with a 4.9% increase in minority enrollment since Blank started as chancellor. Her time at the UW-Madison has had many positive impacts but was also concentrated with controversy.
ASM voted ‘no-confidence’ in the university's police force after their presence during protests and lack of communication with student organizations. The student government leader was particularly oppositional and difficult to work with, according to Blank.
Multiple individuals expressed on Twitter their negative social justice experiences with the chancellor following the announcement that Blank would be the first female president of Northwestern University; “My deepest condolences to all students of color at Northwestern,” user @literally_dirt tweeted. “She was often silent when it came to issues surrounding racism in the institution,” user @maura_mcdonagh wrote.
Whether or not the current chancellor will be missed by students, the issue remains — Blank needs to be replaced.
After a chancellor announces that they are leaving a university, the University of Wisconsin System forms the Search and Screen Committee to narrow down potential candidates into a few finalists. The current committee is chaired by Regent Vice President Karen Walsh. Susan Hagness, professor and department chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will serve as Vice Chair.
This committee is essential to find a qualified candidate. There are not a lot of people in the US that have the leadership, scholarly values, academic or professional accomplishments and commitment to students, faculty and staff to become chancellor, which makes it one of the most important university jobs in the world, according to Tracy.
Once the candidates are selected, the Special Regent Committee chaired by Regent President Edmund Manydeeds III along with Regents Amy Blumenfeld Bogost, Mike Jones, Tracey L. Klein, John W. Miller and Karen Walsh will choose a new chancellor.
According to Aerin Leight Lammers, a student on the Search and Screen Committee and Student Services Finance Committee representative for the Associated Students of Madison, she and other members signed a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) as standard procedure to keep confidentiality throughout the search. In 2012, committee members did not sign an NDA and were more open with the process through other actions like a meeting with local businesses. All requests for information about the search process are now directed to the chancellor search website.
Three students total serve on the committee: Lammers, Ndemazea Fonkem, ASM Diversity Engagement coordinator and Luis Gonzalez-Quizhpe, a graduate student in the Master’s of Arts program in Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian studies.
The current Search and Screen Committee also differs from the previous committee in that it now includes three board of regent members and the regent president on the committee. The regents have more control over the current search compared to 2012.
“There’s always a nomination system with this kind of search where people can submit names that they think would be good candidates,” said Heather Daniels, secretary of the Faculty and Academic Staff on the 2012 search and screen committee. “The search firm and the chair of the search will reach out to those candidates and talk with them about the position and try to get them to apply.”
To assist the Search and Screen Committee in the chancellor search process, outside recruiting firms are often hired to find qualified candidates. AGB Search is currently assisting in recruiting potential candidates.
“They [recruiting firm] worked with us in a process,” said Tracy. “There was some protection or protectiveness of the faculty and staff representatives of the role of the search firm. They did not want their role usurped by the professional committee.”
The 2012 committee consisted of 25 members with 13 faculty, two academic staff, two classified staff, two students, four community representatives and two administrators. Nineteen members are on this year's committee with four faculty members.
With a large number of members on the committee and the various experiences of each member, coming to an agreement can be challenging. Making sure that everyone’s voices are heard is crucial.
“We made it very clear that to everyone that was on that committee — undergraduate, alumni representation, union representative and faculty — all had exactly the same vote,” said Tracy. “We all got one vote. Everyone's vote was counted absolutely equally.”
The previous investigation for chancellor sought out similar qualifications in their candidates as the current search. UW-Madison is seeking a chancellor with commitment to scholarly values, academic excellence, academic freedom and a comprehensive understanding of diverse research.
Personal integrity, intellectual curiosity, a personal commitment to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are among some of the outstanding leadership qualities the Search and Screen Committee is looking for in a new chancellor. Other qualifications include a collaborative leadership style, commitment to UW’s tradition of shared governance between faculty, staff, students and alumni and decision-making tactics to advance the university’s mission and the overall UW community.
A strong emphasis on establishing deep relations with industry and government agencies is required for the next chancellor. Ability to communicate effectively and build transparency for budgets, processes, principles and decisions is desired.
Potential candidates must have prior academic or equivalent professional accomplishments in academic scholarship and teaching and/or research with a successful record of leadership experience in higher education or equivalent professional administration, according to the chancellor search’s desired qualifications.
“We thought it was important to have a scholar; UW-Madison is an institution of scholarship, academic learning, teaching, striving and all that stuff,” Tracy said. “We felt it was really important. It was a non-starter not to have somebody who wasn’t eminent in their field.”
The role of chancellor at UW-Madison also involves having an active voice in state politics. In the fiscal year of 2020, the university received $1.4 billion from federal and state government and private sources for research and development. There are strong ties between government, politics and the university, especially when it comes to the positive economic impact the UW has on Wisconsin.
“I remember personally being concerned and making sure that we had a chancellor who was politically savvy, because even back nine years ago, the legislature was causing issues for the university,” Daniels said. “Having someone who could navigate those waters successfully was super, super important.”
To properly assess if candidates met the committee’s qualifications, multiple meetings a week were scheduled to interview the potential candidates. These interviews were primarily done in a conference room at O’Hare airport, said Daniels. Individuals would fly in for just one day and meet with the committee for an hour and then fly home.
In-person interviews provided the committee with further information and insight into applicants besides their resumes and past experiences. Conducting interviews and narrowing down candidates proved challenging for the committee in 2012.
“In an interview, you never know whether a person is just giving lip service to something like working with people, but you can kind of try to get some sense of that,” said Tracy. “In terms of interviewing and in terms of looking at past records, that’s a hard one. If you put them on that list with political savviness then you’ve got somebody who could really work here.”
Once interviews are done and the finalists are chosen, the Search and Screen Committee takes a step back. In 2012, the Board of Regents took over and the committee members helped give the finalists tours of the university.
The entire search process is very diligent, and it is a hard job to sift through to make decisions. UW-Madison always attracts a very strong pool in prior searches, and this time is no different, said Underwood.
While the current chancellor search is still ongoing, there is not a lot of information available. Applications closed on March 11. In April, the committee will conduct semi-finalist interviews and then the finalists will be publicly announced. A new Chancellor will be chosen in May.
“It was really a community-building process actually,” said Tracy. “It’s pretty rare these days.”