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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Rebecca Blank comes "back home" to UW-Madison
New chancellor is happy to reconnect with Midwestern university life
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Creating jobs, improving ties with Legislature are on Blank's to-do list.
Credit:Eric Tadsen

Spend a few moments chatting with Rebecca Blank, UW-Madison's new chancellor, and you may wind up as dizzy and out of breath as you would be if you followed her around for a day. She talks fast and thinks faster, delivering rapid-fire, perfectly articulated responses while maintaining a cheerful demeanor and welcoming smile.

And she oozes passion for her new job.

"One thing I just love about these big public universities is their breadth and depth," she says.

During her first two months in the job, Blank traveled to all the UW campuses and met with students, faculty, alumni and community groups. She also reached out to elected officials.

And she already has an ice cream flavor named for her, Babcock Hall's "Bec-Key Lime Pie."

"I don't know anyone else, among all the chancellors I know, who has one. Clearly we're in America's Dairyland," she says with a laugh.

The economics professor, former acting U.S. secretary of commerce and author of the best-titled blog in academia -- Blank's Slate -- is taking the helm of UW-Madison during challenging times. She must navigate the always difficult relationship between Bascom Hall and the state Legislature, figure out how to attract and retain top faculty, and help the state with job creation. President Barack Obama himself, in his congratulatory phone call, charged Blank with one more thing: making sure the Badgers win.

Midwestern roots

"I do feel like I'm back home, culturally," says Blank, 58, of returning to the Midwest.

This is her second stay in Madison. In 1985 she was a visiting fellow in UW's department of economics and Institute for Research on Poverty.

Blank was born in Missouri but moved with her family to Michigan as a child, then to Minnesota as a teen, where she attended college at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. It was a commuter school, and Blank lived at home while working 30-plus hours a week at four or five different jobs before graduating summa cum laude in 1976.

"I went through in three years," she says. "I worked really hard because I wanted to get out of school and get on with life, I have to admit."

Her first job was at Mister Donut, where she started frying doughnuts at midnight. "It didn't interfere with classes at all as long as I stayed awake."

Blank found a new sense of connection in an environment that valued intellectual curiosity. "Getting to college, you felt like you were suddenly in a world where you belonged," she recalls with a smile. "You weren't the only one having fun in class. Other kids were really getting into it too, and the professor clearly loved it."

Minnesota's busy urban landscape didn't scare her. "I'm someone who, if you'd sent me to a small private college, would have been very unhappy," she says. "I loved being independent, being able to do whatever I wanted to do, put my schedule together, go to classes. There was no one looking over my shoulder. At age 18, I really liked that and was ready for it."

Changing views

Blank chose economics as a course of study.

"I was particularly interested in individual behavior and how individuals are shaped by the larger environment in which they sit," she says.

Blank has since published extensively on interactions between labor markets and trends in the macro economy. She has studied income inequality, welfare and how public policies affect family behavior. During her time as secretary of commerce, Blank wrote op-eds on such topics as measuring poverty, creating jobs and revisiting welfare.

She says some of her policy views have become "a little bit more conservative." For instance, she says she is now much more supportive of tying public assistance to work requirements than she had been at a younger age. She's also come to believe more in the role of community-based organizations in shaping behaviors.

"I think it's partially true that the longer you work in a field the more complex it seems," she says. "It becomes very clear there are no easy and obvious answers."

Common ground

The UW Board of Regents hosted a Finding Common Ground summit in September to foster dialogue between the UW System and state Legislature.

Blank praised the summit as a "really necessary and useful precursor" to building trust.

"It was everyone in the room together talking. I hope that's starting to lay the groundwork for asking how we can stay in this conversation and have it be a fruitful conversation, without devolving into the sort of firestorm where everything moves fast and everyone's being attacked on both sides, and the media jump in. That happened this past spring, and we're not innocent at all in the upsets of the spring. Clearly the university was not being transparent and didn't do a good job of dealing with that issue."

News broke in April that UW had a budget surplus of some $650 million, and angry lawmakers responded with charges of financial mismanagement and a two-year tuition freeze.

Blank says she would like to see things handled differently in the future.

"My hope is when some elected leader on the hill hears a rumor about something terrible happening at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the first thing they will do is say 'I'm going to call Becky,' and pick up the phone and say 'What are you doing up there?' as opposed to immediately going out and saying 'I just heard the most terrible thing about the University of Wisconsin' in a public setting.

"Sometimes [rumors] might be true, and in that case, let's take responsibility for it," she adds. "But sometimes truth is a little more elusive and subtle than the first rumor sounds."

There are other conversations Blank wants to see.

"One of the things I'm concerned with as I look out on this campus is the number of our students who are engaged not in alcohol use, but in alcohol abuse," she says. "That does worry me on this campus.... This is something we need to be paying attention to and talking about in a more public way."

Blank says it's an issue school administrators need to help address. "This behavior affects [students'] academic outcomes and in many cases where they're going to go from here and what their opportunities are.... I can't say we have no responsibility because it's happening on Langdon Street and not on Bascom Hill."

Creating jobs

As chancellor, Blank is eager to apply her experience to job creation in Madison and beyond.

"I'm very interested in the question of how the universities interact with the local economy, in terms of stimulating higher economic growth and job creation. I spent a lot of time working on this in the Department of Commerce," she says.

Blank traveled to many cities where job creation and economic growth were on the rise, despite the loss of older industries. What most of these locations had in common was a big research institution nearby that provided highly skilled labor and cutting-edge innovation.

"Big research universities are absolutely central to that agenda," she says.

Blank says good work is already happening at the University Research Park and through entrepreneurial mentorships in the law school and business school. But she says more can be done.

"It's one of the agenda items I have on my plate as chancellor -- to look around and say what more can we be doing in partnership with the private sector and the public sector in this region to support this type of economic growth"

Blank says Madison's arts culture, food scene, recreational opportunities and bike lanes all help make the city attractive to young entrepreneurs.

"That makes it easier for us to help incubate ideas from our students and graduate students and suggest to them, 'You can do this here. You can start this here.'"

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