When Rebecca Blank interviewed with members of a subcommittee of the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents, she finished 20 minutes early, having succinctly and adroitly made her points, according to sources.
She spoke, I am told, without seeming to survey eyes around the room to gauge what interviewers wanted to hear.
On Monday, UW System President Kevin Reilly and the committee announced that Blank, an economist and acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce, was being recommended to the full Board of Regents, whose approval is a formality, and she will become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Some key points emerged from my not-for-attribution interviews Monday:
• That Blank satisfied the need for a leader who could focus on UW as an economic engine while respecting its liberal arts traditions. Being an economist positions her to lead on outreach in technology transfer and economic development, something ex-chancellor Biddy Martin struggled with as a German literature scholar, without being off-putting to the large campus liberal arts constituency. The fact that some of her work focused on poverty issues, not technology, was not seen as an obstacle.
• That she was strongly supported by the Regent subcommittee and unanimously by the various campus constituencies that include campus deans, the University Committee, which is the executive committee of the Faculty Senate, as well as affiliated entities such as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
• That she had evolved and improved as a polished candidate with a broader and better informed vision than when she applied five years ago for the same job when the choice was Martin.
• That the committee focused on three critical areas and she was exceptional on each: demonstrating an effective listening and leadership personality; being comfortable with the traditions of “shared governance” that frustrates unilateral decision-making; and having a firm grasp of the national and international scope of challenges facing UW-Madison in trying to retain its position as a world-class research university in years ahead.
• That the final hurdle, something the committee had to “get through,” was the fact that she was a member of the Obama administration. Gov. Scott Walker (who strongly endorsed her Monday) and other Republicans were reassured that she was a “policy wonk” in her Washington, D.C. role, not a political player. Though she is a Democrat, her husband works for a Republican-leaning think tank and, while she was at the University of Michigan, Blank raised money for a public policy school named for Republican President Gerald Ford.
• That she presented herself to the committee as a Midwesterner yearning to return to her home region and to a campus setting. Blank graduated from the University of Minnesota before earning a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In his prepared statement, Reilly emphasized how Blank will come with “broad national and international experience in roles where big science and big research intersect with job creation and commercialization.” Other remarks by Reilly and others seemed designed to emphasize economic development and technology transfer themes.
Last month, I interviewed David Ward, who has being serving as interim chancellor as a bridge between Martin and now Blank, and he said the next chancellor would need to be able to stimulate job growth through research and also turn out graduates prepared to work in the 21st century, while also preserving and enhancing the “liberal arts mission of the place.”
His permanent successor, he said, would need to do both those things in an environment in which “there’s not going to be a lot of new money.”
From my conversations Monday, there seemed to be much focus during this process on not repeating what was now regarded as a mistake in having hired Martin in 2008. She arrived after serving as provost of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. You may recall that she departed in haste for the presidency of Amherst College after her plan to separate the Madison campus from the rest of the UW System created an enormous uproar and was finally rejected.
Martin is seen now as someone who did not grasp or fully accept the concept of “shared governance” that is so central to UW’s culture, and I am told that it is clear that Blank does, partly from her time as dean of the public policy school at Michigan, which, like UW, is a large public university. In fact, I am told, Blank was a top choice five years ago but for internal political reasons, it was Martin who emerged as the compromise choice.
The other three candidates each had significant strengths, sources say, but it is not clear there was a single runner-up to Blank. In fact, at least three of the four candidates could have been credible choices, I am told, but Blank’s combination of the ability to articulate a global economic development vision while seeming to “get” other aspects of UW easily carried the day.
Key, I am told, was her ability to communicate. Her approach, I am told, will be to ask those outside the UW, and especially in government, what the university can do to help propel the economy, not just to say “this is what the university can provide.”
In sum, the committee’s choice apparently hinged on choosing the person who is a scholar of national repute with an effective personal style, a crystal clear grasp of “shared governance” and how the place works (“it is one thing to say it and another to live it,” says a source), and, finally, someone who understands how the UW might compete for top faculty to optimize its position as a research institution.