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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  A Few Clouds
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What some UW-Madison faculty hope to see in their new chancellor Rebecca Blank
Blank already seems to be positioning the school for a different economic model.
Blank already seems to be positioning the school for a different economic model.
Credit:Bryce Richter/University of Wisconsin-Madison

Pending approval from the UW System Board of Regents, Rebecca Blank will become the next chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As always, expectations of the university's new leader are high. Conversations with faculty members on campus turned up two broad efforts they'd like to see the new chancellor adopt as priorities.

One is for Blank, currently acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to pursue an economic strategy that would allow the university to remain a top-flight school and research institution despite scarce state aid. They're also hoping to see the price of education at the flagship school drop under her tenure.

At first glance, Blank seems to be well suited to take on such tasks. Five years after losing the job to Biddy Martin (who left for Amherst College in 2011), David McDonald, chair of the chancellor search and screen committee, says it was Blank's experience with the Department of Commerce that tipped the scales this time in her favor.

"If there were questions five years ago, her career in the intervening period had more than answered those," says McDonald, a history professor.

Blank joined the Commerce department in 2009, where she handles a $7.5 billion budget and oversees 47,000 employees.

Blank already seems to be positioning the school for a different economic model. On March 22, she told reporters she wanted to launch a major fundraising campaign. According to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report, Blank said increased private gifts would help subsidize student aid and higher salaries for key faculty. Additionally, students studying for high-demand jobs could see higher tuition costs than those on less prosperous career paths.

Political science professor Donald Downs says it will take "a real visionary" to drop tuition while at the same time ensuring that students graduate with in-demand skills -- and without sacrificing the school's liberal arts programs.

"We've got to find a way to rethink our business model in a way that serves students," Downs says. "At the same time, we don't want to lose our broader educational mission. We take ideas seriously; we take the life and mind seriously, that kind of thing. We don't want to become just a trade school. Great universities are not just trade schools."

Peter Lipton, a physiology professor who is a member of the faculty senate's executive committee, also says professors need higher salaries and that fundraising would be an effective strategy for making the university more accessible to prospective students.

"I think philanthropy has a big effect on the ability to give students the grant they need to come to college," he says. "We're getting less and less applicants coming in here and I think part of that is the money."

Mark Cook, a professor of animal sciences and chair of the faculty senate's executive committee, also likes to look beyond students. He says there's so much technological innovation at UW that it's "pent up." He sees Blank's knowledge of commerce as an opportunity to unlock it all and turn Wisconsin into a venture capitalist hotspot.

"I think that would be a very exciting and pretty robust plan," he says.

Along with the economic balancing act, many are careful to note they hope Blank will be a team player in the university's shared governance system, where faculty and students have a hand in the decision-making.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and an active blogger at The Education Optimists, has expressed concern about Blank in this realm. Goldrick-Rab, who preferred University of Chicago Dean Michael Schill for the chancellor job, says that Blank did not seem very knowledgeable about issues at UW. She says Blank also had the traits of being a bad listener after meeting her briefly.

"I've read her work, she's a very talented social scientist -- there's no doubt about that," Goldrick-Rab says. "How will she work with shared governance? How is she actually going to converse with the students? How is she going to hear dissent on campus? I can't tell."

Even with her misgivings, though, Goldrick-Rab remains optimistic, writing: "I expect Blank will surprise me by being an entirely different leader than Biddy Martin, stunning us all with her commitments to widening access to UW-Madison and keeping it affordable."

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