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Remembering Chancellor Emerita Rebecca M. Blank

WFAA mourns the death of Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank, who passed away on February 17, 2023.

Rebecca Blank was born in Missouri in 1955. Her family later relocated to Minnesota, and there, she attended the University of Minnesota, graduating summa cum laude with an undergraduate degree in economics. An internationally known economist, she also earned a doctorate degree from MIT.

In the late 1980s, Rebecca met Hanns Kuttner in Washington, DC, where they worked one floor from each other in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. She was a senior staff economist for the Council of Economic Advisers, and he was working with the Department of Health and Human Services. In 1990, she left to become a professor of economics at Northwestern University, but they reconnected a couple years later when Hanns moved to Chicago as a consultant for Illinois governor Jim Edgar’s Task Force on Human Services Reform. They married in Chicago and had a daughter, Emily.

Rebecca was a prolific economist, authoring numerous books and academic articles, including her 1997 book, It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty, which won the Richard A. Lester Award for the Outstanding Book in Labor Economics and Industrial Relations. She also wrote Changing Inequality, Insufficient Funds: Savings, Assets, Credit, and Banking Among Low-Income Families, and Is the Market Moral?

Early in her career, Rebecca served on the faculty of both Northwestern University and Princeton University. She was also an assistant visiting professor at MIT. She served as dean and professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan from 1999 to 2008. However, in 2009, Rebecca and her family returned to Washington, DC, where she had accepted a position with the Obama administration. In November 2010, the United States Department of Commerce announced that Rebecca would become its acting deputy secretary, and in late 2011, President Obama nominated Rebecca to be deputy secretary of commerce. The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed her to the post in late March 2012.

A natural leader, Rebecca was named chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison in March of 2013. Throughout her nine-year tenure, she applied her expertise in economics, innovative approach to leading, and her background as an educator and researcher to enhance the student experience and place the UW on solid financial ground. She successfully delivered on her main agendas for the UW — sustaining its position as a leader in innovation and research and providing future generations with the skills needed to succeed in the world’s ever-changing economy, leaving the university even stronger than she found it. She made accessibility a priority, and in 2018 she created Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which guarantees full scholarships for all qualified Wisconsin students whose families earn less than the state’s median income. Rebecca was also credited with enhancing outreach to businesses and communities around Wisconsin, developing important relationships with legislature and state government, and taking a variety of steps to improve the university’s standing after a period of significant budget cuts. 

In her time with UW–Madison, Rebecca helped complete a $4.2 billion fundraising campaign, the largest in UW history, which created more than 5,000 new student scholarship funds and 327 new faculty support funds in addition to setting in motion a number of long-delayed campus building projects.

“Former Chancellor Blank was a tireless leader whose impact on campus is undeniable,” said Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association CEO Mike Knetter. “We send our deepest sympathies to her family and join with others in mourning her loss.”

In October 2021, after the second-longest tenure of any Big Ten public institution leader, Rebecca announced that she would be leaving UW–Madison to serve as the president of Northwestern University. Unfortunately, in July 2022, she made a devastating announcement that she had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer and wouldn’t be able to fulfill her role. 

Rebecca was a force of nature and a beloved leader who impacted many lives in Wisconsin and beyond. She will be greatly missed.

To see additional tributes to Chancellor Emerita Blank from UW–Madison, visit the university’s memorial page. The Chancellor Rebecca Blank Great People Scholarship Fund has been set up in her memory. Gifts support students with financial need, and Great People Scholarships play an important role in making Bucky’s Tuition Promise possible.

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