Northwestern picks Rebecca Blank as president

Current chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Madison will be private institution’s first female leader

October 11, 2021
Source: Northwestern University
Rebecca Blank, incoming president of Northwestern University

Northwestern University has announced its selection of Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in economic inequality, as its next president.

Dr Blank, a former professor of economics at Northwestern, will replace Morton Schapiro, who earlier announced that he would step down at the end of the current academic year.

She was the first tenured woman in the economics department at Northwestern – a 21,000-student private institution with its main campus just north of Chicago – and will become its first female president.

As an economist, Dr Blank has studied interactions between individual behaviour, government policy and labour markets, with a particular focus on poverty and inequality.

In an interview, Dr Blank said that her ambitions for Northwestern included getting its students and researchers more deeply involved in the Chicago area community, through means that include expanded partnerships with local schools and other organisations.

Northwestern has greatly expanded that kind of work since she left Evanston in 1999, Dr Blank said. “My question is: is there a strategic plan there, how are we thinking about this, where do we need to be engaged,” she told Times Higher Education.

Her hiring announcement comes on the same day that three colleagues – two with ties to Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she previously taught – won the Nobel Prize in economics for using naturally occurring experiments to help with poverty alleviation.

“They’ve taken on issues that are real-world problems, and told us something about them,” Dr Blank said of the new Nobel winners. “That’s exactly what universities should be good at doing.”

Along with her academic work, Dr Blank has served as an adviser in three US presidential administrations covering both major political parties. She was deputy secretary of commerce in the Obama administration, and also served as acting secretary of commerce.

Northwestern said that its 34-member search committee unanimously recommended Dr Blank. “As part of our process, we heard from all segments of the university community” in making the choice, said Peter Barris, a venture capitalist and university board of trustees vice-chair who headed the search committee.

At Wisconsin, while the state heavily cut public support for her institution, she led a $4 billion (£3 billion) fundraising campaign aimed at helping lower-income and minority students attend the university.

Wisconsin now has more than 4,000 students paying no tuition fees, with minority students accounting for an all-time high of 25 per cent of its freshmen class, the university said.

Professor Schapiro, also an economist, has been Northwestern’s president since 2009. He faced criticism in recent years for his handling of protests over racial injustice and police misbehaviour.

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