Last month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison community mourned the passing of Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who led the university from 2013 to 2022. Hundreds of community members filled the First Congregational United Church of Madison on Saturday to celebrate her life and legacy.
Blank was an economist with degrees from the University of Minnesota and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had held three federal positions — including Acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce — in the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations before her career in academic administration.
Blank stepped down from her role as UW-Madison’s chancellor to become the next president of Northwestern University, but she was prevented from assuming the role because of a cancer diagnosis.
Blank fought for seven months before passing away at the age of 67. At her memorial service, her husband Hanns Kuttner shared that Blank was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma 45 years earlier, and the era’s recent medical advancements enabled her to successfully beat it.
“She reflected on where she was and said, ‘I got 45 years after Hodgkin’s disease. I probably wouldn’t have had those years if I had been born 10 years earlier,’” said Kuttner of his late wife’s attitude towards her fight with cancer.
“We can be surprised and grateful for how long Becky lived rather than how soon she died,” continued Kuttner. “Consider the gifts we’ve received and gained through those additional 45 years.”
The contributions Blank made to UW-Madison were significant. In 2018, she greenlit Bucky’s Tuition Promise, a program that pays four years of tuition for any Wisconsin resident whose household income is below $65,000.
Qualification for Bucky’s Tuition Promise is straightforward because, in Blank’s words, “Financial aid can be confusing to prospective students. We stripped away the complexity.”
When she unveiled the program, Blank said, “Our goal is to ensure that anyone who is admitted can afford to be a Badger.”
Today, almost 5,000 students have benefitted from Bucky’s Tuition Promise.
During her time with UW-Madison, Blank also played a pivotal role in exposing some of the more shameful elements of the university’s history. Many large institutions have histories, symbols and events they would rather forget, but Blank and UW-Madison demonstrated a willingness to confront these parts of its history.
Blank commissioned the multi-year, in-depth investigative Public History Project, which exposed such unsavory events as the 1960s’ “gay purges” and minstrel shows, among other incidents that reflected regressive, harmful institutional practices.
The “Sifting and Reckoning” exhibit this past fall at the Chazen Art Museum put many of the project’s findings on display and garnered great interest among the community. Soon, the Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History will open, which builds upon the work Blank made possible.
Besides Blank’s illustrious legacy she left behind on campus, her memorial service was replete with beautiful memories about her character. Four eulogies were delivered — one from each part of her career and one from her daughter, Emily Kuttner.
University of Michigan Professor John R. Chamberlin spoke about Blank’s deanship in Ann Arbor; Mark Doms, chief economist of the Congressional Budget Office, testified to her federal accomplishments; and CEO of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association Michael M. Knetter spoke of her time with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Knetter expressed a sentiment echoed by most everyone through the service: Blank’s integrity and strong moral character, both professionally and personally, and how it guided all the other exceptional qualities — like her, “service to her mission, intelligence, decisiveness and work ethic” — that made her an “executive phenomenon.”
After Blank’s remarkable career was thoroughly commemorated, Emily Kuttner rose to the pulpit to speak about her mother. In contrast to the momentous achievements lauded by previous speakers, Kuttner was able to share more tenderly about the little personal things.
“There are so many things I love in this world because of my mom,” she said. “Donuts, sunrises, reading, lilacs, jigsaw puzzles, grapefruit, hiking, chocolate cake and two-part harmonies.”
Kuttner recounted some of the beautiful moments she shared with Rebecca Blank, a woman who gave unselfishly to her family and her community alike, and noted what was common between them.
“In all of these memories, she’s a lady happily at rest,” said Kuttner fondly.