Wausau Pilot & Review

MADISON – Rebecca M. Blank, an economist and educator who served in high-level U.S. government and academic positions and, for nine years, as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, died of cancer on Feb. 17 near Madison, Wisconsin. She was 67. 

During her tenure at UW–Madison, from 2013-2022, Blank focused on improving educational outcomes and the student experience, further elevating the university’s world-class faculty and placing the university on firm financial footing through a combination of private fundraising and inventive strategies.  

She was known for her direct style, quick analysis and dry sense of humor, all while leading one of the country’s top public research universities through a complex political period and a devastating global pandemic. 

“Our community has lost a brilliant leader who cared deeply about making this great public research university stronger, more accessible, better connected to the community and the state, and better positioned to make a difference in the world,” said Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, who struck up a friendship with Blank in 2022 during her own transition into the chancellor role. “Becky inspired faculty, staff and administrators with an approach to problem-solving that combined vision, creativity and pragmatism. 

Making her mark in Wisconsin 

Blank loved the role of Madison chancellor, as she shared in a farewell blog post to the UW community in May 2022 before she left to assume the presidency of Northwestern University. 

“No other job in the world would let me lead an institution with its own marching band, sailing club, mascot and ice cream flavors,” she wrote, noting her love of Bucky Badger. “In no other job do you get to address 50,000 people in Camp Randall (Stadium) on graduation day when they are all in a happy mood and can’t wait to hear what you have to say.” 

Among her most notable achievements as UW–Madison chancellor 

  • Bringing commencement back to Camp Randall in partnership with the spring 2014 senior class 
  • Creating new programs, most notably, Bucky’s Tuition Promise, to further open the doors of the university to lower-income students across the state 
  • Leading increases in undergraduate enrollment, making strides to expand campus diversity, and helping reduce the average time it takes students to graduate 
  • Advocating for increased state support 
  • Leading the university through multiple efforts to improve administrative efficiency 
  • Leading the All Ways Forward campaign, which raised funds for 327 new faculty funds and more than 5,000 new scholarships  
  • Overseeing the creation of the School of Computer, Data and Information Science to meet the growing needs of the state’s workforce, student demand and the needs of broader society 

“Becky was a transformational leader for UW–Madison, serving during challenging times,” says Provost Karl Scholz, who came to know Blank decades ago as a fellow economist, then worked closely with her while he served as dean of the College of Letters & Science, before becoming provost in 2019. “Early in her tenure, she helped navigate difficult budget cuts; late in her tenure, the COVID pandemic. She was wise and decisive.” 

He adds: “Recognizing that the university needed to tap new sources of revenue in order to thrive, she envisioned a multifaceted, strategic plan to move us forward. She built a collegial and talented team, was always available to problem solve, react to, or guide the essential work of the university.” 

During her years as chancellor, Blank served on the boards of multiple national organizations, including the Board of Directors of the NCAA, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities and as chair of the Big Ten Council of Chancellors and Presidents. 

She counted among her highlights at UW–Madison her attendance at numerous Badger athletics events, including the Rose Bowl, and two NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournaments. 

A life marked by service 

Rebecca Margaret Blank, “Becky” to those who knew her, was born on September 19, 1955, in Columbia, Missouri, the daughter of Uel and Vernie Blank. As a child, Blank lived in Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota. 

She graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BS in Economics and later completed her PhD in Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her work in economics focused on the interactions between low-income labor markets, macroeconomics, and government policy. Some of her best-known work was around improvements in the measurement of poverty. 

Lawrence Berger, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research in the Social Sciences and former director of the UW–Madison Institute for Research on Poverty, called Blank “a true visionary and role model who I am honored to have known and worked with closely.” 

“Becky tirelessly fought the good fight for all that she believed in. Her pathbreaking scholarship informed actionable policies for reducing poverty and inequality, for which she fiercely advocated in her various government and nongovernmental roles,” Berger said. “Her legacy will live on through her many contributions to the world.” 

Throughout her career, Blank interspersed academic work with government service, where she dedicated herself to improving public policy and its implementation.  

Among her achievements and service: 

  • Holding faculty appointments at UW–Madison, Princeton University, Northwestern University, and the University of Michigan, where she served as dean of the School of Public Policy while it was renamed for Gerald R. Ford 
  • Publishing close to 100 articles and several books 
  • Receiving the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize from the?American Academy of Political and Social Science?in 2015 and, in 2021, becoming the first UW–Madison economist to be named a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association 
  • Serving as a senior staff member on the Council of Economic Advisors during the George H.W. Bush administration and as a member of the council during the Bill Clinton administration 
  • Serving as Under Secretary for Economic Affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce under Barack Obama, where, among other things, she oversaw the Census Bureau during the 2010 Census; serving as Deputy Secretary at Commerce; and serving more than a year as Acting Secretary in the Obama cabinet 

Honoring Blank 

Blank arrived at UW–Madison in June 2013 to become chancellor. In June 2022, she became Chancellor Emerita and departed for the position of president at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., the first woman ever to hold that title. However, she withdrew prior to beginning to serve due to her cancer diagnosis. 

She made a significant impression on all who knew her. 

“Among Becky’s endearing characteristics, a favorite of mine was to learn how much she loved and supported the people she worked with,” Scholz says. “The world is a little darker today having lost such a talented leader, and great friend to so many.” 

She is survived by her husband, Hanns Kuttner, their daughter, Emily (Ann Arbor, Mich.), her brother, Grant Blank (Oxford, UK), his wife, Denise, and daughters, and her mother, Vernie Blank (Columbia, Mo.).  

A memorial service and campus remembrance are being planned. More information and tributes will be available on the Rebecca Blank memorial webpage