By all accounts, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank brought much-needed administrative skills to an organization that had taken its share of hits.
But now that she’s headed to the top job at Northwestern University the future of the state’s flagship university — and in some sense, of the state itself — hangs on one key question:
Will the Board of Regents bring in another administrative guru or will it seek out a leader who can finally unlock the potential we all know is there? Someone who can oversee the translation of UW-Madison’s world-class technology into world-class applications for the global marketplace.
When Blank arrived in Wisconsin in 2013, she walked into a hornet’s nest of problems. The state Legislature was furious that the UW System had not been transparent about $648 million of cash reserves; then-Gov. Scott Walker and hostile lawmakers were dramatically cutting state support and planning years of tuition freezes; then along came COVID-19, cratering many of the university’s revenue sources and creating a host of other problems.
Despite the challenges, Blank proved an able administrator. She worked with the Board of Regents to lift a cap on the higher-paying out-of-state student population while increasing in-state student numbers; started the Bucky’s Promise program to provide free tuition to in-state students from lower-income families; improved salaries in academic areas that had become fertile ground for other schools’ faculty raids; and participated much more than her predecessors in fundraising to help ratchet up donations and philanthropic gifts.
Blank’s administrative prowess will serve her well at Northwestern, which was roiled by a federal lawsuit filed in January by one of the school’s cheerleaders. It accuses the university of fostering a hostile environment in which cheerleaders were groped and harassed by fans and alumni. More than 80 female faculty members in February wrote a letter to Northwestern President Morton Shapiro — who in March announced his 2022 departure — saying they are “tired of feeling like our employer is incapable of adequately addressing issues of structural racism and sexism.”
But that’s Blank’s headache now — or should I say new challenge.
The challenge she leaves behind is the unfinished task of transforming UW-Madison into what it could and should be in the 21st century: A global innovation hub that is a center of excellence for transforming new science into commercial applications.
UW-Madison had $1.37 billion of research funding in 2020, making it one of our country’s top 10 research organizations. But it’s punching below its weight. The university was last among the top 10 with seven licenses to startups and tied for eighth with just 69 commercial licenses executed in 2020, according to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM).
UW-Madison touts North Star Analytics’ February 2021 economic impact report — which reads like a marketing brochure if you ask me — saying the university contributes $30.8 billion a year to Wisconsin’s economy. This economic impact hocus pocus isn’t the point.
The university’s key metrics shouldn’t be how much taxpayer money goes back into the state’s economy or how many patents it gets issued — after all, it's what you do with them. In the 21st century, a great university should be measuring itself based on metrics like how many new industries it helps to grow and how many more high-paying science and technology jobs it helps to create, preferably in our region.
The point is that the state’s flagship university — which is getting government research grants and pursuing excellence in science and technology and innovation — needs more than a great administrator to bring order and effect change inside the box. UW-Madison needs someone who thinks outside the box.
China has dramatically scaled up investment in science and technology and is rapidly commercializing its discoveries in AI-enabled weapons systems, 5G technology, semiconductor chips and many other areas, as shown in a series of papers written for the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy project called “Global China: Assessing China’s Growing Role in the World.” Washington’s key reaction is the US Innovation and Competition Act (previously known as the Endless Frontier Act), which is making its way through Congress and would authorize billions for technology research and commercialization.
This is the moment to double down.
UW-Madison had promising starts in genetics, stem cells, imaging and other areas. But for one reason or another they all fizzled and research centers in other geographies became hubs for the commercial activities that ensued. The chance to compete globally evaporated.
Blank nurtured other areas that still have potential. She supported the university’s focus on nuclear fusion, which has manifested itself in a growing, visionary company called Shine Technologies. She also, with some prodding, got the School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences, or CDIS, started. Those might be great areas to lean in to.
The Board of Regents committees that will search for a new chancellor have a choice. They can go through the bureaucratic motions and produce a slate of seemingly acceptable candidates.
Or they can find a leader who understands that the modern research university is about more than teaching and publishing papers. It’s about actively engaging with the world and reducing pollution and conserving energy and making people healthier — accelerating the process of turning important insights into world-changing uses.
In other words, leaning into a better future for all of us.
Kathleen Gallagher was a business reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Milwaukee Sentinel for 23 years. She was one of two reporters on the team that won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for the One in a Billion series. Gallagher is now executive director of 5 Lakes Institute, a nonprofit working to grow the Great Lakes region's high technology entrepreneurial economy and culture. She can be reached at Kathleen@5lakesinstitute.org.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Kathleen Gallagher: New UW-Madison chancellor must spur innovation