For the first time in its history, Northwestern University has named a woman to lead the institution.
Rebecca M. Blank, the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is set to become Northwestern’s 17th president, the university announced Monday.
When Blank assumes the position in summer 2022, she wants to expand the scope of research and the opportunities students have for learning outside of the classroom. She is also committed to bolstering the support low-income students have on campus.
“Students who come in as first-generation students, in particular, often can’t navigate the university as easily as other students. You got to have things in place that give them that type of help,” Blank told the Sun-Times. “That’s what Northwestern and other schools have to be about.”
During her tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she launched a program that guarantees free tuition to some low-income Wisconsin residents who attend.
Blank is also an internationally renowned economist specializing in researching poverty and the low-income labor market. She has served in three presidential administrations, most recently as acting secretary of commerce and deputy secretary of commerce under President Barack Obama.
Blank is a former Northwestern economics professor. Decades ago, she became her department’s first tenured woman professor, Northwestern said.
“She knows from the inside what it looks like to be the first, and the kinds of hills that you need to climb in order to get to that place where you are qualified and ready to be promoted in a space in which women and underrepresented minorities in the past just really have been unwelcome,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, who teaches political science at Northwestern and is a woman in academia herself. “It’s really a new day.”
Higher education in the United States has only seen a change in the gender landscape over the last couple of generations, Hurd added, and Northwestern was “long overdue” for diversification of top leadership.
Blank will succeed Morton Schapiro, who has been president of the Evanston school since September 2009.
Last year, Schapiro came under fire — with some even calling for his resignation — after he criticized student protesters and accused them of anti-Semitism after demonstrations demanding the disbandment of the school’s police force.
The calls to resign began after Schapiro wrote a letter saying protesters should be “ashamed” of using an anti-Semitic trope by calling him “piggy Morty.” In the letter, he called the protesters “disgraceful” and said the school had “absolutely no intention” of abolishing its police force.
Students of color at the University of Wisconsin at Madison made similar demands to their institution last year, but Blank at the time said she would not defund university police.
“I’ve worked with some groups of protesters who you really can sit down with and can say, look, let’s talk about your agenda,” Blank said. “Communication is really important ... whether they’re protesting outside your office or whether they’re just wanting to come in and talk to you about an issue.”
Northwestern P.h.D. student Nathan Lamp said students want the next president to be more accountable to community members from marginalized groups.
Lamp, who worked with administrators as a member of a task force created to look into gender inclusive strategies at the university, said Schapiro’s efforts to listen to students on diversity and equity issues have felt “perfunctory.”
Lamp said the institution needed new leadership, new perspectives and, “At the very least, there’s I think some kind of understanding of inclusivity as a practice of doing administrative work and running the university.”
Associated Student Government President Christian Wade said he’s looking to work with Blank to facilitate meetings and communication with students and student activist groups.
”A big thing is going to be how is she going to adjust to the ... rapidly changing demands and needs and desires of the body, and a student body that is becoming more and more diverse,” Wade said.