UCLA law dean Jennifer Mnookin named next UW-Madison chancellor. Republicans are criticizing the selection.

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Jennifer Mnookin is set to become the next chancellor of UW-Madison on Aug. 4.
Jennifer Mnookin is set to become the next chancellor of UW-Madison on Aug. 4.

Jennifer Mnookin, the dean of the University of California, Los Angeles law school, will become the next chancellor of Wisconsin's flagship university this summer.

The UW System Board of Regents unanimously voted Monday for Mnookin, 54, to take the top post at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While the scale of the school Mnookin has led since 2015 — about 1,350 students, 130 full-time faculty and 150 staff — pales in comparison to UW-Madison's 45,000 students and 20,000 employees, she brings deep familiarity with public university systems, having spent 17 years at UCLA and six years at the University of Virginia School of Law. She also said her background as a lawyer has primed her to lead.

“Lawyers have to listen carefully,” Mnookin said in a statement. “They have to think strategically. They are, fundamentally, trained as problem solvers, and sometimes have to persuade people that don’t necessarily see the world the way they do. They also have to be willing to engage across differences and think seriously about alternative points of view. I do think those are qualities that I will bring to this role as chancellor.”

Several leading Republicans were upset with the board's pick. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, of Rochester, urged the Regents to reconsider, calling Mnookin's hire "a step backwards" from the work done by Tommy Thompson, who stepped down as UW System president earlier this year, and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

Mnookin replaces Blank, who departs at the end of this month to become president of Northwestern University. The search for Blank’s successor began late last year and yielded 37 candidates, seven of whom were women and 16 who self-reported as a person of color, according to the UW System.

Mnookin's contract, inked last week, shows she will earn a $750,00 annual salary. That's a bump from Blank's roughly $600,000 salary and from her $517,000 salary at UCLA, according to University of California System payroll data.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to have this opportunity to lead UW-Madison, one of our nation’s truly great public universities,” Mnookin said.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to have this opportunity to lead UW-Madison, one of our nation’s truly great public universities,” Mnookin said.

During a recent visit to the Madison campus, Mnookin suggested using the “Wisconsin Idea,” a belief enshrined in state law that Wisconsin’s higher education system should provide benefits beyond the campus, as a model for why public universities matter.

While UCLA also prioritizes service to its state, Mnookin said her university lacks an elegant and descriptive phrase to explain its mission — “we don’t have a California Idea,” she said — in the way Wisconsin does.

More: Chancellor Rebecca Blank leaving University of Wisconsin-Madison to be first female president of Northwestern University

More: Outgoing UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank suggests 'persistence and stubbornness' for successor

Mnookin developed a deeply intimate understanding of the Wisconsin Idea in late 2020 when she donated a kidney to her dad, longtime Harvard Law School professor Robert Mnookin. The cross-country transplant was possible because of a solution developed at UW-Madison that extends the time that an organ can be safely stored outside of a body.

“I think UW-Madison has the chance to sell that vision for what a public university is and can be as a national and even global model,” she said at a public forum earlier this month.

Asked there how she would offset a decades-long decline in state funding to UW-Madison, Mnookin said she would boost philanthropy efforts, build on industry partnerships and create new degree programs.

“It would be a big mistake to just sit and wait for the state to be our answer,” she said.

UCLA interim provost Michael Levine said Mnookin diversified the law school’s faculty and staff, set fundraising records, established scholarship programs for students who overcame significant life obstacles and achieved its highest ever rankings.

Ann Carlson, a UCLA environmental law professor and chief counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, couldn't pinpoint just one of Mnookin’s strengths.

“One of the hallmarks of her leadership, for me, is just how good she is at so many parts of the job,” Carlson told UW-Madison. “She’s a great manager, a great strategist, a great fundraiser, a great teacher, a great colleague, a great scholar, a great institution builder. I could go on and on.”

Mnookin drew praise in Wisconsin, too.

Regents president Ed Manydeeds called her energy "infectious" and her knowledge of Wisconsin and UW-Madison "impressive."

UW-Madison engineering professor Susan Hagness, who served as vice chair of the search committee, said collaborative leadership is at Mnookin's core.

"She brings vision, high energy, a deep appreciation of the Wisconsin Idea, a passion for students who are at the heart of all that we do, a genuine commitment to fostering an inclusive campus, and an impressive understanding of the opportunities before us," Hagness said in a statement.

Republicans raise concerns

Vos, the most powerful person in the Republican-controlled Legislature, had a different take on Mnookin after reviewing her social media and other online resources.

Federal campaign finance records, for example, show Mnookin has donated about $5,500 to Democratic causes, including to the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden since 2008.

Another concern for Vos was what he described as Mnookin's support for COVID-19 vaccine mandates. He pointed to an op-ed she wrote for the Los Angeles Times in early 2021 that urged vaccines be made available to colleges sooner rather than later to ensure campus life could return in full force. Mnookin also shared on her Twitter account an LA Times column supportive of the UC System's vaccine mandate. Her tweet, however, reposted the column's headline but did not comment on the mandate itself.

Vos also took issue with Mnookin's pride in the law school's longtime Critical Race Studies program. She moderated a panel last summer about critical race theory being under attack.

Critical race theory is an academic framework taught in law school to understand how systemic racism prevails through laws and institutions. Conservatives have used the term as a catch-all phrase for any teaching in schools about race and American history to galvanize their base ahead of the midterm elections.

“We deserve campus leaders who will encourage healthy debate, diverse thoughts and freedom of expression," Vos said in a statement. "Given her obvious viewpoints and political donations, Dr. Mnookin needs to prove she supports free speech on campus and not politically correct ideologies."

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who is running for governor, said she was infuriated by the hire.

"Decisions like this from the Board of Regents make Wisconsin moms and dads consider sending their kids out of state where they can get an honest education," said Kleefisch, whose daughter attends a private college in Texas. "This ridiculous mindset demonstrates why we need to drain the Madison swamp — to get away from this crazy groupthink."

Kevin Nicholson, another GOP candidate for governor, called the board's decision "insane."

Republican opposition to the Regents' chancellor selection is somewhat unusual. Blank, who served as Obama's acting commerce secretary before becoming chancellor in 2013, received bipartisan praise.

Mnookin, who was unavailable for an interview Monday but is scheduled to speak with reporters Tuesday, said through UW-Madison spokesperson John Lucas that she hasn't yet met Vos but looks forward to doing so this summer.

“I plan to work with all members of the state legislature, regardless of party, to help meet our common goal of moving the university and the state forward," she said.

UW System spokesperson Mark Pitsch said the chancellor selection process is rigorous and Mnookin's unanimous vote came from a board that includes individuals appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Mnookin grew up in Berkeley and Palo Alto, Calif. She earned her bachelor’s degree in social studies from Harvard, a law degree from Yale, and a doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has published extensively on issues relating to forensic science.

Mnookin, the fourth woman to become chancellor at UW-Madison, won out among four other finalists: Marie Lynn Miranda, a University of Notre Dame statistics professor and former provost; Ann Cudd, the provost at the University of Pittsburgh; Daniel Reed, a University of Utah computer science professor and former provost; and John Karl Scholz, the provost at UW-Madison.

Scholz will serve as interim chancellor until Mnookin starts Aug. 4.

Mnookin’s husband, UCLA political science professor Joshua Foa Dienstag, will join UW-Madison as a faculty member. Details on his appointment, including his salary, were not available Monday. They have two children, a 22-year-old daughter who recently graduated from college and a 19-year-old son who is still in college.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Jennifer Mnookin is new UW-Madison chancellor, comes from UCLA