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Meet New UW–Madison Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin

A conversation with UW-Madison’s newly selected Chancellor.

If you’re exploring the trails of Wisconsin this fall, be on the lookout for the determined gait of newly-named Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin.

“I love walking, I love experiencing the world on foot,” Mnookin said Tuesday night on The UW Now Livestream. “I love walking around cities I don't know. I also love hiking trails and walking in other kinds of environments, so I'm very excited to get a chance to explore some of the trails of Wisconsin.”

The unanimously selected 30th leader of the University of Wisconsin–Madison comes from her position as the dean of the UCLA School of Law. Prior to UCLA, she served on the faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law and Harvard Law School, and she holds degrees from Harvard, Yale, and MIT—and interdisciplinary approach to academia that she notes is non-traditional in her field.

“I knew I was interested in law, but I was also thinking about whether I wanted to get a PhD and really focus more. I couldn’t quite decide. And so, I did both,” Mnookin said.

Ultimately, Mnookin’s expertise became the intersection of science and law, studying and publishing research on DNA technology, forensic science, fingerprint identification, and handwriting evidence. As she moved into administration, colleagues described her as a collaborative and strategic leader.

“I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to lead UW–Madison. I’m so excited, and I can’t wait to get started,” Mnookin told Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association CEO Mike Knetter during the livestream. “Certainly, I plan to start by talking to a lot of people and listening carefully and broadly as I learn more about the priorities for this campus and exactly what the most important opportunities and challenges are.”

Viewers on the livestream asked Mnookin what her vision of success would be for the chancellor of UW–Madison.

“I’d like to see this incredibly strong set of academic programs be even one step stronger. I mean, I think already there is so much excellence here at Wisconsin across so many different fields, but I’m kind of a competitive person. And the last published ratings, Wisconsin was right below UCLA for total research expenditures. Let’s see that flip,” Mnookin said. “I also think that diversity and inclusion across campus and every student feeling a sense of belonging — racial diversity is one piece of that, but also rural, urban, also across political difference, also religious diversity, gender identity, all kinds of ways of thinking. One of the amazing things about universities is that they bring people together from very different backgrounds, and that project of bringing together a diverse community and also helping people learn how to learn from one another is something that I think this campus has already made significant strides [in], but I’d love to see [it] go even further.”

She also reaffirmed her deep belief in and excitement about the Wisconsin Idea.

“This is one of the most amazing parts of this university,” Mnookin said. “I think there’s more to tell and do and share, both within the state and beyond the state, about the tremendous ways that what’s happening at this university can have an impact beyond its walls. None of these are new things. These are all building on matters that I think are already significant strengths. I also think that UW–Madison is going to need more resources in order to succeed at these. And so, finding ways to build those resources so that this university can be all that it’s capable of is another important thing to focus on.”

Mnookin shared her passion for college remaining financially accessible to students, pointing at the success of Bucky’s Tuition Promise. The program offers guaranteed scholarships and grants to Wisconsin-resident students whose family’s gross income is less than $60,000.

She also answered questions from the livestream audience on building a relationship with Wisconsin lawmakers.

“I’m looking forward to meeting and working with everybody and anybody who’s game to meet and work with me,” Mnookin said. “I think that we need to look for and find the things that connect us. We don’t always have to agree with each other on everything to be able to have constructive, productive, thoughtful working relationships.”

Mnookin is spending just a week in Madison this month, and will begin the job full-time in August. In the meantime, she had this message for alumni and friends who may be wondering how to offer support during the transition: “If they had a good experience here, sharing that with the world, wherever they are now, and helping the next generation of students to understand just what a strong university this is for hiring UW grads and making those connections for networking with them and offering mentoring, and also of course, philanthropic support. Public universities, the ingredient that makes it possible for us to be a great public university rather than a merely good one, is philanthropy and it is the generosity of alums giving back and getting involved in any way they can.”

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