Northwestern names Rebecca Blank, UW-Madison Chancellor, as next president

She will become the university's first woman in that position, taking over for Morton Schapiro in summer of 2022.
By: | October 11, 2021
Photo by Shane Collins/Northwestern University

One of the world’s foremost economists and scholars is returning to her roots in Evanston, Ill., where she firmly established her legacy of leadership in higher education.

Rebecca Blank, the driving force behind student success as Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was named Monday as the 17th president of Northwestern University, the first woman in its 170-year history to hold the position.

Before her move to Wisconsin, Blank had served as the first tenured female professor in economics at Northwestern during the late 1980s and early 90s, as well as Dean of the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and as a faculty member at Princeton University. She officially will take over as president next summer, succeeding Morton Schapiro, who has been leading NU for the past 12 years.

“I am honored and delighted to accept the job as Northwestern’s next president,” said Blank, who also earned her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technoloy. “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.”

Northwestern University, one of the most highly acclaimed private institutions in the nation known for its small class sizes, standout faculty and research prowess, also has seen its endowment grow to $11 billion. Bringing in someone with impressive credentials that match NU’s mission was paramount to its next phase of growth, and Blank’s qualifications – which include assisting three presidents on economic policy as a Secretary of Commerce – wowed the Board of Trustees.

“The Presidential Search Committee met with an incredibly competitive pool of candidates and unanimously recommended Rebecca,” said Peter Barris, chair of the Presidential Search Committee and a vice chair of the Board. “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.”

Over the past eight years, Blank has led Wisconsin-Madison’s resurgence across a number of areas: She helped boost sponsored research by more than $1 billion, vastly improved its diversity, equity and inclusion numbers, bolstered completion outcomes for students and got those who were considering UW to follow through on their interest – applications have doubled over the past decade. And when the state lowered its assistance to the university, she helped lead a capital campaign that pulled in $4 billion.

“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.”

Returning to Northwestern, she brings a strong sense of empathy and compassion through her decades-long work in economic research and leadership. In her first tour at NU, she was 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. She has fought consistently at UW for equity and access, especially for low-income students and families.

Aside from those philanthropic efforts and visionary work across departments and academics, Blank also has been heavily involved in athletics. She serves on the NCAA’s Board of Governors and is president of the Big 10 Conference Council of Presidents and Chancellors.

“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’s combination of leadership skill and balance, ability to aid others and her breadth of institutional knowledge made her the right choice to lead this Top 10 university.

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