Upon receiving the news that University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank was to be the next president of Northwestern University, students at the school wanted to learn more about her. In response, a series of articles in North by Northwestern, a student publication, were published throughout January, February and March that provided the campus with a picture of Blank’s past that has dismayed many.
Blank is set to leave UW-Madison at the end of the academic year to become the 17th president of Northwestern. She will be the first female president in the university’s history.
The articles detail a history of incidents in which Blank has been dismissive of University of Wisconsin-Madison students’ concerns, especially when dealing with issues of racial and economic justice.
For each installment, Blank could not be reached for comment; spokespeople for both universities said she would not accept interviews from a Northwestern student. Grace Deng, a student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and the writer of all three installments, stated in an interview with The Daily Cardinal that she felt this was representative of what she heard from students: Blank was inaccessible.
According to Deng, the project was originally intended to be a stand-alone piece. But as she interviewed students who had had experiences with Blank’s administration, she realized that the problems ran too deep to be summarized in one article.
A major factor in this conclusion was discovering that a number of student activists and representatives attended group therapy to process the trauma of their interactions with administrators, Deng said.
In a way, that was at Blank’s recommendation — she had referred Associated Students of Madison’s chair at the time, Matthew Mitnick, to mental health resources in lieu of holding a meeting Mitnick had requested to discuss hostility from administrators.
Deng highlighted Blank’s removal of Chamberlin Rock last year, which was considered a positive, albeit small, step and met one of the demands made by the Wisconsin Black Student Union in 2020. However, student activists say removing the rock was a concession in place of removing the Abraham Lincoln statue on Bascom Hill, as well as Blank caving to the pressure of optics.
UW-Madison student Giselle Monette, who is Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, said to North by Northwestern that when she tried to explain Lincoln’s role in the genocide of Native Americans, Blank expressed an alarming lack of compassion.
Blank instead told Monette that the 38 Sioux men hung in Minnesota in 1862 could have been “a lot more,” and failed to address the other things Lincoln had done to facilitate the genocide, like the signing of the 1862 Morrill Act.
According to the chancellor, removing the Lincoln statue is a “non-starter” because of the financial implications it would have. Despite the sentiments expressed by Indigenous students, this move would almost certainly alienate some of the school’s donors — and according to Blank, students are “just one of [her] many stakeholders.”
Enjoyiana Nururdin, the former managing editor of The Black Voice, UW-Madison’s Black student newspaper, is currently working towards her master’s degree at the Columbia University School of Journalism. She had the opportunity to meet with Chancellor Blank multiple times throughout her time at UW-Madison.
Of her meetings, Nururdin expressed that she perceived the administration as being disconnected from students’ experiences on campus. She echoed many other students’ sentiments: that it was challenging to make contact with Blank and members of her administration, and that the bureaucratic nature of the system enabled them to avoid direct communication with students.
In the fall of 2020, Blank held a press conference with The Daily Cardinal and the Badger Herald; The Black Voice was not present. When the newspaper was informed of the event, they were later able to schedule a meeting with the chancellor.
During the meeting, Blank told The Black Voice that they should have reached out if they had wanted to be included in the meeting. Nururdin expressed frustration with this rhetoric.
“We didn’t know that there was a meeting to begin with,” Nururdin said. “So how would we have advocated for something that we wouldn’t have known about?”
Nururdin’s main takeaway from this meeting was that it emphasized a pattern of deferring responsibility: meeting with students, according to Blank, was “not [her] job.”
In response, Nururdin encouraged students to “work to understand what it is that [a chancellor] does do and what [they] can do.” The next person to take on this role, she stated, should place a greater emphasis on transparency within their own position.
In delegating responsibilities and failing to provide a clear line of communication, Blank’s administration has made it challenging for students to know where to go with their grievances and has failed to provide the appropriate advocacy for BIPOC students.
Blank’s administration also has a history of being dismissive towards student government. When the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) attempted to pass the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund, which would have helped low-income students pay rent, the administration stonewalled.
Sam Jorudd, an ASM representative at the time, told North by Northwestern that every meeting regarding the fund devolved into the same format: administrators would present potential issues with the students’ legislation, students would counter with solutions, and administrators would “come up with just five more problems, another laundry list.”
Despite ASM’s persistent efforts, the fund was not passed, largely due to obstruction on the part of the administration. Dean of Students Christina Olsted condemned ASM for “misleading students that [the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund] will happen,” and stated: “I think that is disgraceful, to be honest with you.”
The administration has faced other criticisms of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In January of 2022, the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) wrote a letter asking for a more robust COVID response, including two weeks of online classes following winter break. Despite the letter attracting more than four hundred signatures, they received no reply.
According to TAA co-president John Walker, Blank and her administration refused to sit down with the TAA and discuss their concerns. Walker said that this disengagement was typical of Blank.
“She does not even come to the table,” Walker said. “It’s not even acting in bad faith; there’s no faith at all.”