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Rebecca M. Blank named next president of Northwestern

Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, renowned economist will become Northwestern president in summer 2022

  • Updated: October 14, 2021 – Editor's note: This page has been updated to reflect that Rebecca Blank was not the first, but one of the first, tenured women in economics at Northwestern. While we originally believed her to have been the first, we have since received information showing there was at least one woman who was tenured in the department prior to President-elect Blank.
  • Link to: Northwestern Now Story
  • Blank served on Northwestern's economics faculty from 1989-1999
  • She is a pioneer in poverty research and has served in three presidential administrations
  • Blank has increased research funding and championed expanded access to higher education in her eight years at UW-Madison

Rebecca M. Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin’s flagship campus, has been named the next president of Northwestern University, Northwestern's Board of Trustees announced today. She will become Northwestern’s 17th president, effective in the summer of 2022.

An internationally renowned economist, Blank is a well-known researcher on poverty and the low-income labor market and has served as an economics expert in three presidential administrations. Her appointment as Northwestern’s next president marks a return to the University, where decades ago she was one of the first tenured women in the economics department. When she begins her appointment next year, she will make history – as the institution’s first woman president.

“I am honored and delighted to accept the job as Northwestern’s next president,” Blank said. “Northwestern is a school that I have known and admired for years. Its reputation as a top-rated educational and research institution has grown each decade. It will be my mission to make sure the institution’s reputation and quality continues to accelerate.”

“The Presidential Search Committee met with an incredibly competitive pool of candidates and unanimously recommended Rebecca Blank to the Board for election as our 17th president,” said Peter Barris, chair of the Presidential Search Committee and a vice chair of the Board of Trustees. “As part of our process, we heard from all segments of the University community, and I believe Chancellor Blank’s deep experience and talents will support our current needs and position us for a promising future. 

“The committee found Chancellor Blank to be unparalleled and impressive in her power to articulate a comprehensive and unifying vision across Northwestern’s constituencies and inspire as a proven collaborative and bold leader,” Barris said.

Blank will succeed Morton O. Schapiro, who has served as Northwestern’s president since 2009, one of the longest presidential tenures in the University’s history. President Schapiro’s tenure will conclude in summer 2022.

“Becky is an experienced administrator and a highly accomplished scholar,” President Schapiro said. “I look forward to watching her take Northwestern to ever greater heights.”

Distinguished leader in higher education

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for almost two decades, Blank’s distinguished research and policy portfolio was most recently recognized with a lifetime achievement award as a 2021 Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association.

As chancellor of an AAU research institution for the past eight years, Blank oversees an enormous research portfolio, which brought in $1.5 billion in sponsored research funds in the past year. Blank, who has long been involved with issues of inequality and equity through her research, made improving diversity and access a priority during her tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Blank has championed expanded access during her time at the UW-Madison, notably through Bucky’s Tuition Promise, an initiative that guarantees four years of free tuition to Wisconsin resident students whose household adjusted gross income is $60,000 or less. Under Blank’s leadership, UW-Madison's student body became more diverse across multiple dimensions. She received the very prestigious 2021 Posse Star award from The Posse Foundation for her leadership in education and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Educational outcomes at UW-Madison have steadily improved during her tenure, and UW-Madison is now one of the Top Ten public universities in six-year graduation rates. Debt levels have fallen markedly and applications have doubled in the past 10 years.

She is widely credited for forging new relationships with legislature and state government that enabled her to take multiple new steps to improve the university’s finances following a period of budget cuts.

“I could not be prouder to announce the election of Chancellor Blank as Northwestern’s next president,” said J. Landis Martin, chairman of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees. “She is a distinguished scholar and visionary leader, who shares the ambitions of the Board of Trustees and University community for advancing Northwestern as an iconic institution. Her bold vision for the University’s role in the world and her proven ability to lead a collaborative academic research enterprise will guide our institution toward greater eminence and impact.” 

In 2019, Blank launched the School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences, bringing together the top ranked departments of Computer Sciences (#13), Statistics (#10) and the Information School (#11). This newly formed school serves its own majors as well as many students from across campus who want additional training in data and computer science. This helps build a uniquely prepared talent pipeline to drive economic growth in Wisconsin and beyond. Blank recently announced a major gift that will help build a new facility for this new school.  

Blank spearheaded an unprecedented capital campaign for UW-Madison, the All Ways Forward Campaign, that succeeded in raising more than $4 billion, extending support for critical areas and addressing emerging and urgent funding needs in the wake of declining state funding. As part of this university-wide effort, the Raimey-Noland Campaign specifically targets donations to rally around the university’s most critical needs for its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, focusing on increasing the diversity of the student, faculty and staff bodies, enhancing students’ academic success and career readiness, supporting an inclusive and welcoming campus environment, and investing in research addressing social and racial injustice. The Raimey-Noland Campaign has raised almost $40 million since it was launched in the summer of 2020.

“My goal was to leave UW-Madison stronger than when I arrived,” Blank said. “I believe I’ve accomplished that. We’ve particularly focused on access and diversity among both faculty and students. While there is always more work to do in this area, it has been good to see the university engage seriously with these issues and make noticeable progress.” 

Pioneer in poverty research

Blank has strong ties to Northwestern, where she served on the faculty of the economics department from 1989 to 1999. She served as director of the Joint Center for Poverty Research and the co-director of the Northwestern/University of Chicago Interdisciplinary Training Program in Poverty, Race and Underclass Issues.

A prominent economist, Blank focused on the interactions between labor markets, individual behavior, government policy and the macroeconomy. She has published extensively on issues of poverty, low-income workers and inequality.

Following her service at Northwestern, Blank served as the inaugural Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan where she was also on the faculty of the Economics Department. She also spent time on the faculty of Princeton University.

“For Northwestern, and for this pivotal moment in our world, Chancellor Blank is the leader for our time,” said Virginia M. Rometty, vice chair of the Search Committee and a vice chair of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees.

Public servant in three U.S. presidential administrations

Blank served in three presidential administrations, most recently as acting secretary of commerce and deputy secretary of commerce under President Barack Obama. She also was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton, a senior staff economist on the Council under President George H.W. Bush, and spent time as the Robert S. Kerr senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy research think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Chancellor Blank brings Northwestern adroit executive leadership experience from another powerhouse AAU research institution,” said Charles A. Tribbett III, a vice chair of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees. “She promises to be adept in driving our characteristic interdisciplinary scholarship. I am confident Chancellor Blank also will be sensitive in improving access and skilled in enabling successful experiences in student life and learning.” 

Blank is a leader in Division I athletics, serving on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Board of Governors and the Division I Board of Directors. Since 2021, Blank has led the Big 10 Conference Council of Presidents/Chancellors as president of the Board.

“I am deeply committed to the idea of student-athletes,” Blank said. “Athletics teaches focus, discipline and teamwork, all qualities that benefit these students in their future careers. When you compete, you should compete to win; but we should always put the health and well-being of our students ahead of athletic success. These are students, not professional athletes.”

Blank received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She is married to Hanns Kuttner, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. They have one daughter, Emily, who graduated from Northwestern.


Editor's note:

When we announced Rebecca Blank’s appointment as Northwestern’s next president, we believed she was the first tenured woman in the University’s economics department when she arrived in 1989. Since then, it came to our attention that Irma Adelman, who joined the economics department in 1966, also had tenure. Northwestern’s records are not clear on the exact date, but multiple sources indicate Adelman left the University in the early 1970s.

Both women are trailblazers in a field that historically had and continues to have more men than women. A study by the American Economic Association in 2017 found that only 14% of faculty in Ph.D.-granting economics departments were women. Northwestern appreciates the dedication and work by both Professor Adelman and President-elect Blank, and the foundation they established for future generations of women economists.

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