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Saturday, June 22, 2024

University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Emerita Rebecca M. Blank passed away peacefully with family by her side Friday evening after a seven month battle with cancer. Blank, 67, served as chancellor from 2013 to 2022. (Courtesy of Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank: An enduring legacy

UW-Madison’s late chancellor made an impressive impact with influence that not only shaped the campus community but stretched well beyond the confines of Madison.

When news broke of former Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s death on Feb. 17, notes from university faculty, former colleagues and the greater University of Wisconsin-Madison community poured in, expressing admiration of the legacy left behind by the leader. Blank’s influence not only left a mark within the bounds of campus, but far beyond the confines of Madison and well before her time served as chancellor too. 

Blank held a nine year tenure at UW-Madison from July 2013 until May 2022 — one of the longest from any leader of a Big Ten public institution. Blank accomplished a myriad of initiatives during her tenure, the formation of Bucky’s Tuition Promise being one of the most notable. The program guarantees scholarships to low-income students from Wisconsin families making less than the state’s median income, effectively expanding access to more students. 

Other memorable accomplishments under Blank’s tenure include the All Ways Forward campaign, the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history, collecting $4.2 billion from over a quarter-million individual donors to create more than 5,000 new scholarship funds. The Public History Project, led and organized under Blank’s leadership, drew attention for its culminating “Sifting and Reckoning” exhibit displaying controversial elements of the university’s past, and was praised for the institution’s frank scrutiny and bold introspection. 

“Becky was a leader who was in equal parts inspiring and deeply pragmatic,” current Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin shared in a campus-wide email. “She had high expectations, a willingness to be direct, extraordinary mastery of the complex landscape of this great university, and boundless energy.”

Blank faced many challenges, as her tenure began during a tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates that lasted the entire nine years of her chancellorship. She led the university through the duration of the pandemic. Blank also oversaw a change in legislation removing tenure protections from state law, marking a period of time where it was uncertain if the university would retain much of its faculty. 

Countless examples of Blank’s steady leadership and numerous achievements while at UW-Madison could be listed, and were even included in the former chancellor’s own reflection written after departing UW-Madison for the position of president at Northwestern University. Prior to starting at Northwestern, Blank was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and stepped down from the position to receive treatment in Madison.

But the Missouri-native’s influence as a leader, government professional, published author and professor began far before her chancellor tenure in Madison. 

Influence beyond campus: A public and civil servant  

After receiving a PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Blank held faculty positions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Northwestern University and the University of Michigan, according to UW-Madison archives

Blank was an internationally known labor scholar whose expertise lay in low-income labor markets, government policy and macroeconomics. She spent time directing the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center and the Northwestern University and University of Chicago’s Joint Center for Poverty Research, according to White House archives

Before Blank started her tenure at UW-Madison, the prolific economist held positions in three presidential administrations. Blank advised the Council of Economic Advisors for Clinton and H. W. Bush administrations, and acted as both the deputy and acting secretary of commerce for the Obama administration. Under the Obama administration, Blank worked to make businesses more innovative at home and competitive abroad, accelerate job creation and increase economic growth by creating well-paying jobs.  

“Dr. Blank's four years serving in my administration was just one part of her extraordinary life. Whether in government or academia, she devoted her career to reducing inequality and increasing opportunities for others, and made everyone around her better,” former President Barack Obama shared

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Chancellor Mnookin said Blank’s service in the Obama administration “was one of her greatest sources of pride in what you rightly call her extraordinary life.”

Continued legacy of a beloved and dedicated leader

At UW-Madison, former Chancellor Blank’s legacy lives on at the Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History — the center’s name was announced last month. Formerly called the Public History Project, Blank was instrumental in its inception, approval and funding of the center’s successful “Sifting and Reckoning” exhibit

Director of the center, Kacie Lucchini Butcher said she credits part of the project’s success to Blank’s commitment and belief in its potential impact, noting how she was fiercely supportive and aware of the risks and rewards of investing in it. 

Butcher said she deeply admired Blank and understands having her name on the center is a huge responsibility, and wants to work to make her proud. The center’s role serving the campus community will continue to reflect Blank’s personal legacy of service and the service she gave to the university, Butcher said. 

“Our project turning into the [Rebecca Blank] Center is just one piece of an amazing life,” Butcher said. “We want to continue to live up to an amazing legacy.”

Despite Blank’s small stature, she always commanded a room, and everyone around her looked up to and was inspired by her leadership, Butcher shared.  

“If you've talked to a lot of people about her, you will find that everybody is a better leader because they’ve had contact with her,” Butcher said. “That’s just really special. I don’t think you can find that all the time.”

Blank’s leadership style was notably decisive — she made tough decisions with ease, stuck by them, and owned up and took the blame and responsibility with humility if they turned out to be wrong, Butcher explained. 

“I respected that she didn't always make decisions that everybody liked, but at least she was decisive,” Butcher said. “When she made a decision, she stuck by it, and she stuck by the consequences. So when those decisions didn't work out, she also took full responsibility.”

“I think that's really hard as a leader. It's really hard to have that kind of humility in the face of making mistakes,” she added. “The best leaders have that humility.”

Another continuation of Blank’s legacy, in a similar fashion to the center, takes the form of the newly created Rebecca Blank professorship. UW-Madison botany professor Kate McCulloh was announced the first to receive the title on Feb. 16  — the day before Blank’s passing. The professorship, designed to recognize accomplished faculty committed to service, was named to honor the leadership and service shown by Blank. 

McCulloh shared she was always impressed by Blank’s ability to think on her feet and respond to questions and criticism with clarity and confidence. The professor said she is happy to have gotten an opportunity to honor her, despite the bittersweet timing. 

“She was an inspiration,” McCulloh said. “She always tried to find the best path forward for as many people as she could.”

Butcher touched on Blank’s unique relationship with students and how it was often illustrated by memes online that “never felt callus or mean, they were always very warm spirited,” and brought up how students would endearingly dress up as her for Halloween. Blank’s relationship with Bucky the mascot was also a genuine friendship, Butcher explained, something she really valued. 

“She had this kind of mythos around campus,” Butcher said. “That's unique too, you don’t see students dressing up like chancellors for Halloween. That doesn’t happen to everybody.”

Blank often shared her adoration for UW-Madison students, faculty and all of its campus hallmarks — the Terrace, Bucky the Badger, Camp Randall, Lake Mendota and Daily Scoop ice cream to name only a few. 

“It’s been an honor every day that I’ve served as chancellor at this university,” Blank wrote last May in her farewell blog post. “I have come to love this campus, as I know you do. I look forward to watching it continue to move forward.” 

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