Rebecca Blank gave her last address as Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Wednesday, May 11. She reflected upon many accomplishments the university achieved over her nine years of service, such as more stable finances, research expansion and sustainable diversity initiatives.
“I’m not talking about my legacy, I’m talking about our legacy,” said Blank in her opening remarks. “All of the things done on campus took an enormous amount of effort from staff, faculty, students, my executive team and the deans. All of this was a team effort and not an individual effort.”
Since Blank’s arrival, UW-Madison has increased available summer programs, class sizes, out-of-state tuition, research dollars and donations from alumni. Faculty salaries also grew substantially to match peer levels. Investments in IT infrastructure and the creation of the School of Data and Information Science improved computer science efforts at the university.
“We were always very good,” said Blank. “We are even better now. We are one of the top 10 public universities in the country.”
Throughout the years, UW-Madison has worked to sustain greater diversity and inclusion of all community members. With Blank, the student body and faculty became more diverse, but more work needs to be done. The School of Education is working to train faculty to teach in more diverse classrooms and facilitate conversations with diverse communities, according to Blank.
Initial results of a recent Campus Climate Survey displayed persistent issues with diversity and inclusion on campus among students. Dissatisfaction and a low sense of belonging on campus for these underrepresented groups continue.
“It is clear that there are still gaps in marginalized groups and their degree of satisfaction and sense of belonging on campus,” said Blank. “There is an unfinished agenda there. I think a new person coming in will hopefully put together their own set of projects and ideas that they want to bring to this campus.”
Diversity and inclusion issues have always been a struggle for UW-Madison, especially as a predominantly white institution.
“I think we have done a number of things that have helped move the university forward but we are still a predominantly white institution in a predominantly white state,” said Blank. “This is work that will be ongoing for a long time.”
A decreased graduation gap for low-income and underrepresented groups and an increased number of students who graduate with zero debt further contributes to the prestigiousness of UW-Madison. Twice as many students at UW-Madison leave with zero debt compared to universities around the country, said Blank.
Blank also had a goal of expanding research and funds throughout her tenure.
“When I arrived, research dollars were declining at a time when dollars were growing at many of our peer schools,” Blank said. “This meant that we slipped some in the rankings. We have stabilized that. Research dollars grew 17% over the past five years. We brought in almost 1.5 billion dollars in research awards last year.”
The 2015 Always Forward Campaign — an initiative dedicated to teaching, research and outreach — originally aimed to raise $3.2 billion dollars for student support, educational experience, research innovation and faculty excellence. This campaign helped deepen scholarship pools, fund main faculty positions, attract and retain top faculty and subsidize the cost of key building projects on campus.
“More than one person told me we had made a mistake and that number was simply too large and we were going to miss it,” said Blank. “At this point, we have ended the campaign and have raised almost $4.3 billion.”
Despite Blank’s accomplishments, she voiced some unfinished business at the university.
“I wish we would have gotten further in terms of some of these metrics of diversity and inclusion,” said Blank. “We have done a lot, but I can say we haven’t moved the needle as far as I wish we would have. We do have more work to do on all of this, but many people are committed to keeping us focused on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
The amount of regulation and oversight needed to enact university changes remains unresolved for Blank, as well. UW-Madison is the only university in the country that does not have a bond rating or the ability to do its own bonding. This constrains the university in a number of ways.
“When concrete falls off of a building here, I have to go through a process that takes months of approval as opposed to moving forward and giving fixes that need to be done,” said Blank. “We need far more flexibility in our ability to maintain our facilities, to build new facilities and to think forward about our capital structure.”
This is a great university with outstanding faculty, staff and absolutely amazing students, Blank stated.
“I am going to miss a lot about Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” said Blank. “I am going to miss the terrace. I am going to miss game days. I am going to miss Bucky, but I will particularly miss the people who have made my time here so rewarding.”