Introducing Chancellor Rebecca Blank: The Face of UW-Madison’s Future

A scholarly economist’s outlook on the importance of the big research university

By Charlie Duff Photos by Jeff MIller, UW-Madison University Communications
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University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank pictured in her office in Bascom Hall on July 30, 2013.

Although oftentimes it is unseen or overlooked, there is something unique going on in Madison, Wisconsin. Nestled on a beautiful isthmus and committed to ecological conservation, Madison is the capital of a state whose motto, “Forward,” encapsulates movement toward a better future. Politicians work to govern the state; entrepreneurs work to form new businesses; professors work to research and teach; and students work to learn to succeed in the future. The entity that houses the professors and students, UW-Madison, is living up to Wisconsin’s motto by taking a step forward with its new chancellor, Chancellor Rebecca Blank. An economist and scholar, Chancellor Blank recognizes the crucial and distinct role that UW-Madison plays in the future of Wisconsin and the world.

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Chancellor Blank’s job prior to UW-Madison was serving as the Acting Secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce. Before that, her career was dedicated to academia. “I love the big public research universities – I grew up around these sorts of places,” says Chancellor Blank. She grew up in Minnesota, received her undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota and then spent most of the last 20 years of her life at Northwestern University and the University of Michigan as a teacher, researcher, and, at Michigan, the Dean of the Public Policy School. After spending time at schools in the Midwest, Chancellor Blank knew UW-Madison very well and easily adapted to her new home. “I’m very familiar with the Big 10, and Wisconsin is one of the top public universities, so the chance to provide leadership here, to me is really just a wonderful opportunity,” says Chancellor Blank.

While it may seem odd to have left academia to be the Acting Secretary of the Department of Commerce, only to return to the university life as the Chancellor of UW-Madison, Blank sees a similarity between the two positions. “What I’m doing here doesn’t feel that much different than what I was doing over at the Department of Commerce,” says Chancellor Blank. “The connection between the Department of Commerce and the university deals a lot with the idea of American competitiveness and thinking about what is going to matter in the long run.” Chancellor Blank expresses that two important factors playing into that competitiveness are creating a highly skilled work force, especially with respect to technical skills such as those of engineers, and staying on the front edge of innovation and invention. “There’s only one real institution that does that, and that’s the big research university.”

Taking a step back and looking at the role of the big research university in society, these institutions create the future through research and education. The functionality of these universities should be cohesive with the rest of the societal functions, namely the economy and the government. Chancellor Blank believes strongly in this relationship. “Stepping up our involvement with state economic development, making sure that we are stimulating the growth of new businesses and that we are partnering with existing businesses, all of that is key to saying what I think is absolutely true, that the big research university here in this state, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is central to the economy of this state, and we need to be in partnership together,” says Chancellor Blank. There is a continuous cycle in which the university educates students and develops technology through research to create a new work force, businesses provide work for graduates and incorporate the technology, and the state makes laws to govern and implement the new developments to ensure society’s success and maintain its organization.

The question is raised of what we can do to help make the world a better place as a public university, whether it’s about ideas or students.

In the past, the association between UW-Madison and the state hasn’t been as unified as many would like. Mending this bond is an issue Chancellor Blank takes very seriously. “One of my primary jobs is to recreate a smooth working relationship with the state, and an important piece is to make it clear to everyone how committed the university is to being part of the economic development of the state,” says Chancellor Blank. In any big institution, in particular big research universities, one of the biggest challenges is financial stability. Facing the decline of state funding, the tuition debate and even federal budget cuts, UW-Madison’s financial management is always a topic of discussion and debate. Fortunately, with such a strong background in economics, Chancellor Blank is confident that it is possible to effectively maintain stability in order to keep Wisconsin on the forefront of technology and innovation is possible.

Staying ahead of the game in these fields and recognizing the relationship that UW-Madison has with the state shows how Chancellor Blank believes in the Wisconsin Idea – an idea regarding the importance of the university reaching out beyond its campus boundaries so that what happens here on campus is in service to the state. But Chancellor Blank has even a bigger idea: to not limit the Wisconsin Idea just to the borders of the state, but to think about Wisconsin in service to the nation and in service to the world. “The question of what can we do to help make the world a better place, whether it’s about ideas or students, I think we have that responsibility as a public university,” says Chancellor Blank, “and I love the fact that we have an actual name for it – the Wisconsin Idea.”

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It becomes clear that UW-Madison made the perfect selection in choosing Rebecca Blank as the next chancellor. She is committed to a relationship with the state, a stable economic plan, research and education to provide the world a better tomorrow. It is undeniable that Chancellor Blank lives the Wisconsin Idea. “I guess I really deeply believe that these big public universities are fundamental to the future of our nation, and making sure that they not only survive but they thrive is incredibly important,” says Blank. As the role of UW-Madison was and is becoming defined in Wisconsin, the future of this great university is undoubtedly bright.

Q&A Section

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Chancellor Blank, and the above quotes came directly from that interview. Since there was extra material in the interview I thought was important to include, here is some of our conversation that I left out of the article.

Charlie: What is your favorite spot in Madison?

Chancellor Blank: The terrace. Where else is there? The first day we arrived in town, my husband, daughter, and I went down and had a brat on the terrace and sat and looked out over the lake. It was the middle of July and was just beautiful!

Charlie: Have you been to a Badger football game yet?

Chancellor Blank: I have indeed. I have gone to every home game! The football is just great. We have had such a good team this year, and the new coach is superb. It has certainly been a fun fall for Badger football. And, luckily, I’ll be out in Orlando for the bowl game, which should be a great game!

Charlie: Engineering seems to have a huge role in the future; how does the schooling and the research combination within engineering play a key role in your vision of UW-Madison?

Chancellor Blank: First of all, you can’t be a full-fledged research university without a first-rate engineering school. Engineering is not the only school of which this is true, but certainly for engineering, the students that are educated there and the research that is done within the school is going to be in very high demand in the next several decades around the world. Much of what engineering does, particularly in certain sectors of the economy, in which manufacturing is the most obvious, is what the private sector is going to need to maintain our role in global and competitive economy.

One of the exciting things about being an engineer right now is that there’s really a revolution going on in manufacturing. There are potentially some technical changes that are going to jump manufacturing in the way that the steam engine did. 3D printing is one example of them, another being the availability for better human-machine interaction. There’s a series of changes going on that we have just begun to see the front end of. It’s not clear what manufacturing is going to look like in the next 20 or 30 years, and there are really great engineering problems involved in that.

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Charlie: How can we students recognize your vision, help build it, and even enhance it?

Chancellor Blank: The first and most obvious answer is when you get your degree, you will be an embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea because you will be a piece of the university that is out there in the world, and your life, your career, the work that you do, in your community or your professional life, you will hopefully use some of the things you learned here. So I would say go have a successful career, and be active in your community and take that sense of service and outreach into your life. Our alumni are really the true embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea. Second, while your first priority is classes and grades and the things you need to do to get through your program, I hope that students do internships or volunteer at the Morgridge Center for Public Service or will be involved in some way that link the campus and community. And I know a lot of students do that and I think that’s equally important while they are here on campus.

Charlie: What other advice would you give to undergraduates?

Chancellor Blank: Just enjoy the time you spend here at Wisconsin! Jump in to the environment and get involved. It’s what I love about these places. Get involved in the groups you are passionate about and work hard, but take advantage of everything that’s around here!