Donna Shalala is frequently cited as the most consequential chancellor in the past half century at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But then Shalala, who started three decades ago, was fortunate that her five years here predated the current era in which many major public institutions — certainly including Wisconsin’s elite research university — have become political punching bags.
Shalala was also lucky to work with Tommy Thompson, a Republican governor who supported and even revered the UW, as he earned both his bachelor’s and law degrees here.
That was then.
This Sunday, Rebecca Blank will mark the fifth anniversary of her starting date as Madison chancellor. That matches Shalala’s tenure, but maybe we should look at Blank’s as a de facto 10 years, because for all of her time here, Blank has essentially held two jobs.
One is identical to Shalala’s, focused on ensuring the university retains and extends its excellence in all regards: its world-class research stature, outstanding faculty, affordability, exceptional student body and pursuit of diversity.
Then there is the second job: extolling the UW’s statewide brand and, more generally, defending against the next political attack.
The always-diplomatic Blank doesn’t put it that way, but that was my takeaway from our in-depth anniversary interview in her Bascom Hall office.
Blank has weathered much in these five years — battles over cuts in state funding, raids on UW faculty from other schools, controversy over tenure policy, as well as slippage in UW’s national research ranking.
But asked to cite her accomplishments, she points to a series of more recent bounce-back themes.
“We’ve been through some challenging times in the last five years,” Blank said. “There’s no question about that, but I also feel like we’re at a good place right now.”
In the face of deep state budget cuts, she pointed to successful money-raising initiatives including increased alumni giving, more summer semester programs and higher out-of-state tuition, all of which have helped with financial stability.
She also pointed to progress on affordability, citing new scholarships and other forms of financial aid aimed at helping low-income and transfer students from “first-generation” households. She also pointed to progress on educational outcomes for students, saying dropout rates, debt loads and time-to-graduation numbers are all improved.
Finally, she pointed to a recovery in the UW’s research funding. “My first two years here, research dollars at this university fell, and it’s no surprise that we fell in (National Science Foundation) rankings from being in the top five,” she said. (UW’s total research expenditures are now sixth highest in the nation; in 2012 it was third highest, and second in 2007.)
“One reason research dollars were falling is our faculty numbers were falling,” she said. An effective strategy, Blank added, has been emphasis on “cluster hiring,” bringing faculty together in key scientific areas across multiple departments. “It feels like we have moved forward.” She added later, “What would really delight me is if we move back into the top five.”
Looking ahead, Blank hopes the UW is able to disconnect its capital budget process from oversight by the Legislature. “We are the only university in the country … that does not have our own bonding authority,” she said.
Ah, then there’s Blank’s second job, the political one.
The simple but awful truth is that many Republican politicians see UW as an inviting target.
A National Review article nicely summarized why: “Radical professors, race-obsessed provocateurs, gender-studies grafters, anti-Israel fanatics, weak-kneed administrators, disgusting libertines, angry feminists, and illiberal student protesters,” was its right-wing summation of university culture. “Conservatives can get on board with this critique.”
Blank must know that, because she had to overcome the stigma of having worked in the Obama administration to even get her job here. And she knows some on campus would prefer she blast back: “There are occasionally people who want me to make very strong political statements, often on issues that are not directly related to what I think of as university business.”
But let’s not kid ourselves. A campus incident, or even a factually accurate speech that rubs controlling Republicans the wrong way, could bring a demand for leadership change, especially now that GOP appointees have tighter control of the Board of Regents, which oversees all UW campuses.
In fact, some on campus fear Blank might leave in frustration. “I’m flattered they want to keep me around,” she said with a smile when I posed that possibility. “But I am committed to this place. As long as I feel there are ways to move this institution forward, I am going to be working on that.”
Pressed, she said, “I am not actively looking at other jobs at the moment, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Yet Blank sounds keenly aware of the challenge.
“I think the role of navigating the political waters, the role of being a cheerleader for higher education and its importance in this society, in this economy, in this state, is more important than it’s been at times in the past.
“Those things that I would’ve taken for granted 20 years ago are being questioned publicly: Is a college education worth it? Are universities good places or bad places to send your children? My role is to speak very strongly for higher education and what it does for this society, and I have no problems doing that, and I think I’ve done that pretty strongly and loudly, both in and out of the state.”
She added, “There’s a lot of suspicion of institutions, and there’s particularly suspicion of what are perceived to be elite institutions. There’s not a more elite institution than a big state research university, so it’s not that surprising that there are a lot of charges coming at us, many of which I think are very misstated and based on things that aren’t facts, but my job is to respond back to that.
“There are days where I find it discouraging that I have to actually argue for the value of a college education in a world where the returns are higher than they have ever been in history.”
She said the criticism comes from both the right and left, and it causes a “whiplash.”
“If that goes on very long,” Blank concluded, “you destroy your public institutions. This university will not continue to be world class.”
She paused, adding, “And you know, we’ll see.”
Yes, I thought, we will.