Portrait of Rebecca Blank smiling and wearing a read jacket with a white silk scarf tied loosely around her neck. She is standing against a dark gray studio backdrop.

Rebecca M. Blank, 1955⁠–⁠2023

A life of leadership, scholarship and service

Rebecca M. Blank, an economist and educator who served in high-level U.S. government and academic positions and, for nine years, as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, died of cancer Feb. 17 near Madison, Wisconsin. She was 67.

During her tenure at UW–Madison, from 2013–2022, Blank focused on improving educational outcomes and the student experience, further elevating the university’s world-class faculty and placing the university on firm financial footing through a combination of private fundraising and inventive strategies.

She was known for her direct style, quick analysis and dry sense of humor, all while leading one of the country’s top public research universities through a complex political period and a devastating global pandemic.

“Our community has lost a brilliant leader who cared deeply about making this great public research university stronger, more accessible, better connected to the community and the state and better positioned to make a difference in the world,” said Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, who struck up a friendship with Blank in 2022 during her own transition into the chancellor role. “Becky inspired faculty, staff and administrators with an approach to problem-solving that combined vision, creativity, and pragmatism.

Making her mark in Wisconsin

Blank loved the role of Madison chancellor, as she shared in a farewell blog post to the UW community in May 2022 before she left to assume the presidency of Northwestern University.

“No other job in the world would let me lead an institution with its own marching band, sailing club, mascot and ice cream flavors,” she wrote, noting her love of Bucky Badger. “In no other job do you get to address 50,000 people in Camp Randall on graduation day when they are all in a happy mood and can’t wait to hear what you have to say.”

It was Blank, in fact, who brought commencement back to Camp Randall Stadium in partnership with the spring 2014 senior class, in order to celebrate the day on “a grander scale.”

Her desire to elevate Wisconsin touched all facets of the institution.

Under her leadership, the university created new programs, most notably, Bucky’s Tuition Promise, to further open the doors of the university to lower-income students across the state. She also led increases in undergraduate enrollment, made strides expanding campus diversity and helped reduce the average time it takes students to graduate from the state’s flagship campus.

She frequently traveled the state of Wisconsin, touting the university’s impact to Rotary clubs, editorial boards and on plant tours, advocating for increased state support.

Blank also led the university through multiple efforts to improve the administrative efficiency of the university.

“Becky was a transformational leader for UW–Madison, serving during challenging times,” says Provost Karl Scholz, who came to know Blank decades ago as a fellow economist, then worked closely with her while he served as dean of the College of Letters & Science, before becoming provost in 2019. “Early in her tenure, she helped navigate difficult budget cuts; late in her tenure, the COVID pandemic. She was wise and decisive.”

He adds: “Recognizing that the university needed to tap new sources of revenue in order to thrive, she envisioned a multifaceted, strategic plan to move us forward. She built a collegial and talented team, was always available to problem solve, react to, or guide the essential work of the university.”

Blank was also a prolific fundraiser, leading the All Ways Forward campaign, which raised funds for 327 new faculty funds and more than 5,000 new scholarships. And she oversaw the creation of the School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences to meet the growing needs of the state’s workforce, student demand and the needs of broader society.

During her years as chancellor, she served on the boards of multiple national organizations, including the Board of Directors of the NCAA, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities and as chair of the Big Ten Council of Chancellors and Presidents.

She counted among her highlights at UW–Madison her attendance at numerous Badger athletics events, including the Rose Bowl and two NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournaments.

A life marked by service

Rebecca Margaret Blank, “Becky” to those who knew her, was born on September 19, 1955, in Columbia, Missouri, the daughter of Uel and Vernie Blank. As a child, Blank lived in Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota.

She graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BS in Economics and later completed her PhD in Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her work in economics focused on the interactions between low-income labor markets, macroeconomics and government policy. Some of her best-known work was around improvements in the measurement of poverty.

Lawrence Berger, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research in the Social Sciences and former director of the UW–Madison Institute for Research on Poverty, called Blank “a true visionary and role model who I am honored to have known and worked with closely.”

“Becky tirelessly fought the good fight for all that she believed in. Her pathbreaking scholarship informed actionable policies for reducing poverty and inequality, for which she fiercely advocated in her various government and nongovernmental roles,” Berger said.

“Her commitment to UW and its Institute for Research on Poverty was unwavering, as was her commitment to our nation, state and community, as demonstrated locally by her leadership in the DreamUp Wisconsin initiative,” Berger added. “Her legacy will live on through her many contributions to the world.”

Throughout her career, Blank interspersed academic work with government service, where she dedicated herself to improving public policy and its implementation. She held faculty appointments not only at UW–Madison, but also at Princeton University, Northwestern University and the University of Michigan, where she served as dean of the School of Public Policy while it was renamed for Gerald R. Ford. She published close to 100 articles and several books.

Blank received the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize from the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2015 and, in 2021, became the first UW–Madison economist to be named a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association.

She was a senior staff member on the Council of Economic Advisors during the George H.W. Bush administration and served as a member of the council during the Bill Clinton administration.

In 2009, she accepted the role of Under Secretary for Economic Affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce under President Barack Obama, where, among other things, she oversaw the Census Bureau during the 2010 Census. She then moved into the role of Deputy Secretary at Commerce and served more than a year as Acting Secretary in the Obama cabinet.

Honoring Blank

Blank arrived at UW–Madison in June 2013 to become chancellor. In June 2022, she became Chancellor Emerita and departed for the position of president at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., the first woman ever to hold that title. However, she withdrew prior to beginning to serve due to her cancer diagnosis.

She made a significant impression on all who knew her.

“Among Becky’s endearing characteristics, a favorite of mine was to learn how much she loved and supported the people she worked with,” Scholz said. “The world is a little darker today having lost such a talented leader and great friend to so many.”

She is survived by her husband, Hanns Kuttner, their daughter, Emily (Ann Arbor, Mich.), her brother, Grant Blank (Oxford, UK), his wife, Denise, and daughters and her mother, Vernie Blank (Columbia, Mo.).

A memorial service and campus remembrance are being planned. More information and tributes will be added to the campus webpage dedicated to Blank’s memory.

Remembering Rebecca Blank in photos

Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin’s message to the UW⁠–⁠Madison community

To our UW–Madison faculty, staff and students,

I am writing with terribly sad news. Late Friday night, Chancellor Emerita Rebecca M. Blank passed away peacefully with her family by her side, after a seven-month battle with an aggressive form of cancer.

I have been in touch with Becky’s husband, Hanns Kuttner, to share my deepest sympathy, and I let him know that I and thousands more in our UW family will keep him, their daughter Emily, Becky’s brother and mom, and their family and close friends in our thoughts at this incredibly difficult time.

Our community has lost a brilliant leader who cared deeply about making this great public research university stronger, more accessible, better connected to the community and the state, and better positioned to make a difference in the world.  That Becky accomplished all of these goals while also helping raise $4.2 billion in the largest fundraising campaign in the university’s history and while dealing with historically large budget cuts and a global pandemic is extraordinary.

Becky was a leader who was in equal parts inspiring and deeply pragmatic. As so many faculty, staff and administrators have shared with me, she had high expectations, a willingness to be direct, extraordinary mastery of the complex landscape of this great university, and boundless energy that was fueled, I understand, by the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, and Diet Coke she’d often bring for lunch — along with the occasional slice of her favorite  German Chocolate Cake, made right here on campus.

For our students, Becky was an enormously respected chancellor who brought commencement back to Camp Randall Stadium (she often said commencement was her favorite day of the year), who delighted in celebrating all things UW, and who created Bucky’s Tuition Promise — making it possible, for the first time in UW history, for us to tell Wisconsin’s neediest families that the university would fully cover their students’ tuition and fees.

Our alumni and friends tell me that Becky inspired them to stay connected to the university and impressed them with her intensely strategic approach to identifying strengths to build on and new possibilities to explore (not to mention her remarkable grasp of every small detail), which ultimately persuaded so many of our incredibly generous supporters to help us put UW on an exciting new path to the future.

For our partners in the community, in the Capitol, and across the state, Becky was a passionate public servant dedicated above all to making people’s lives better — and a fierce advocate for this university.

And for me, Becky became a trusted advisor and friend during my transition into my new role here. Though she’d had to give up her dream of becoming the first woman president at Northwestern University, and though her health was deteriorating, she gave me the hugely generous gift of her time, wisdom, and insights on numerous occasions throughout this past semester.

We are fortunate that she was at the helm of this extraordinary university for nine years, and in the coming weeks, we will make time and space to talk about her many professional achievements and the impact of her scholarship and leadership on our university, state, and nation. We’ll also share the ways we are honoring her legacy, including the naming of the Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History and the Rebecca Blank Professorship, and some additional ideas. We will celebrate her life and mourn her loss.

But for today, I hope you will join me in keeping a thought in your heart for her family and close friends, and in sharing — if you wish — a memory of her here.



Jennifer Mnookin

Give a gift in memory of Rebecca Blank

Your donation to the Chancellor Rebecca Blank Great People Scholarship Fund provides crucial scholarship dollars to the students across campus who need it most and makes financial access initiatives, such as Bucky’s Tuition Promise and others, possible.

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Community tributes

Barack Obama smiles, looking off the camera, wearing a black jacket and light shirt.

Dr. Blank's four years serving in my administration was just one part of her extraordinary life. Whether in government or academia, she devoted her career to reducing inequality and increasing opportunities for others, and made everyone around her better. (From Twitter)

Barack Obama, 44th US President
A white-haired woman smiles. She is wearing a multi-colored scarf.

The world has lost a brilliant and compassionate economist, a great educator, an inspirational leader and a talented institution builder. I’ve lost a dear friend. I was privileged to work closely with Becky at the Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton Administration. Becky’s soft heart and hard head—her creativity and pragmatism--enabled her to shape public policies that improved the lives of many American families, especially those least advantaged. I will sorely miss her.

Janet Yellen, US Secretary of the Treasury
Jay Rothman

Today, we learned of the passing of UW–Madison Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank. Our sympathy goes out to her family, her friends and her colleagues. She was a great leader for our flagship university, whose strength and vision built a legacy and foundation that benefits so many here in Wisconsin. Her accomplishments at UW–Madison rippled across this state and our nation. She made us all better, and we will miss her.

Jay Rothman, University of Wisconsin System President
A headshot of Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers. Evers is a gray-haired man. He is smiling. He wears a black suit coat and black tie and glasses.

Chancellor Blank was a dedicated leader and advocate for UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Idea, and higher education, from reaching more students through Bucky's Tuition Promise to ensuring our flagship campus retained its status as a premier public research institution. Becky was always adamant in her belief that higher education could solve problems, bring people together, and forge new partnerships and paths forward. Kathy and I are saddened to learn of her passing and are keeping her family in our hearts. (From Twitter)

Tony Evers, 46th Governor of Wisconsin
Karen Walsh

UW–Madison Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank was one of the smartest people I have ever known. Her wit combined with the tenacity and courage she exemplified every day was a tremendous benefit for all of us in Wisconsin. While she was not born here, you would never know it from the relentless passion in which she led UW–Madison. Her creativity and innovation drove student success and advanced research. She leaves an extraordinary legacy for all of us at the UW System and our sympathy is with her family. We will all greatly miss her.

Karen Walsh, President, University of Wisconsin Board of Regents
A man smiles at the camera. He is wearing a blue jacket, red tie and glasses.

Chancellor Blank was an incredible leader of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But she was also a leader among leaders in higher education. As a new President in the Big Ten, I was in awe of her efficiency and effectiveness. She had an uncanny ability to keep things moving in a meeting while making sure everyone felt they had sufficient input. She was so sharp and insightful about complex topics facing higher education. She will be sorely missed by her friends, colleagues and peers.

Darryll Pines, President of University of Maryland, College Park
A woman in a black suit smiles.

Becky was a brilliant academic leader who leaves an exceptional legacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also was a dedicated public servant who had a tremendous impact on higher education more broadly, and on AAU specifically. Becky served on AAU’s board as well as our membership committee. She also served on the boards of other important higher education organizations, including Internet2 and APLU. Becky was a true friend to many of us – and we will miss her deeply. My thoughts are with Becky’s family, and especially her husband, Hanns Kuttner, who has been an integral part of our program for the partners of AAU presidents and chancellors.

Barbara Snyder, President of the Association of American Universities
Headshot of Governor Tommy Thompson. Tommy has short gray hair and is wearing a blue suit jacket over a white button down shirt.

Becky led with a passion, energy, and focus that was singular and determined. Her vision and indefatigable work moved the university forward with every unwasted moment and action. No detail was too small to gain her attention, demanding proof and improvement. We are all better for her efforts to insist on and manage change. I knew a leader driven to results - understanding intuitively that each decision was an opportunity to lift the university and its role in the life of the state, nation, and world it serves. Bucky and I owe her many thanks and a special place in the heart of every Badger.

Tommy G. Thompson, 42nd Governor of Wisconsin, former UW System President
Headshot of Mike Knetter

Chancellor Blank once said that it was always her goal to leave UW–Madison stronger than she found it. I have no doubt she achieved that. Her intellect and work ethic are unmatched; she worked tirelessly with her team to build a stronger, more resilient university. It was an extraordinary honor to work alongside her.

Mike Knetter, CEO, Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association
A woman in a black jacket with multicolored embellishment smiles.

Chancellor Blank was an extraordinary leader whose brilliance, eloquence, and boundless energy was an inspiration to us all. May her family be comforted by the outpouring of tributes that reflect the breadth and depth of her impact at the UW-Madison and beyond.

Susan Hagness, Philip D. Reed Professor and Chair, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Matthew Mayrl, Former Chief of Staff to Rebecca Blank

Becky was one of the most inspirational leaders I have worked with, unfailingly demonstrating a commitment to the health of the university above all else and never letting anyone outwork her.  She loved UW-Madison and the mission of great public research universities. Her career – across government and higher education – improved countless lives and demonstrated her deep commitment to public service.

Matthew Mayrl, Vice President of Strategy Performance & Partnerships at AmFam Group, Former Chief of Staff to Rebecca Blank
A curly-haired woman smiles. She is wearing a black dress, white necklace and many colorful bracelets.

Chancellor Blank helped the University of Wisconsin-Madison navigate some difficult political waters. However, she never lost her head and always tried to determine what was in the best interest of the institution. She worked with the community through the Urban League of Greater Madison, 100 Black Men of Madison, and the Divine 9 organizations. The Divine 9 Plaza on East Campus Mall will stand as a lasting tribute to her work.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, Professor Emerita
Chris McIntosh, director of UW Athletics, stands in Camp Randall Stadium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

On behalf of our entire Athletic Department, I want to express my heartfelt condolences to the late Chancellor Blank’s husband, Hanns, their daughter, Emily, and to all of her family members and friends. Chancellor Blank was an enthusiastic supporter of our student-athletes, coaches and staff and she positively impacted the lives of a great many people during her time at UW-Madison. She loved the Badgers and was a dedicated supporter of our program.

Chris McIntosh, Director of Athletics
Kelly Vazquez

Becky resembled everything I could hope to be in terms of a woman that led and pioneered in the academic space. When she spoke — people listened. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, she led UW Madison with a fierce passion and fervor that made me proud to be a badger. Becky spoke at my PhD commencement this past May, and I knew it was her last commencement at Madison, but not her last commencement here with us. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be touched by her impact. She will not be forgotten on the isthmus.

Kelly Vazquez, PhD, class of 2022
A man in a light jacket, blue shirt and glasses. He is smiling.

Our entire WARF family extends our deepest condolences to Chancellor Blank’s husband, Hanns, and their daughter, Emily. Chancellor Blank was an outstanding leader and advocate for our great public university. Her commitment to advancing UW, to benefit the state and the world, has had immediate impact, will benefit our community for a very long-time to come, and will not be forgotten.

Erik Iverson, Chief Executive Officer of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

A humble recognition to those who maintained serenity in the most crucial moments of our student community and made the right decisions to keep the ship afloat during the storm. An example of life and integrity until her last days, thank you endearing, "Rebecca Blank".

Hector Herrera, Custodian /215 Crew

I would like to thank chancellor Becky Blank for making it an “economic” possibility for my son to have an education at UW Madison. He is now a very successful Engineer!

Lisa Terzinski, Parent

The Public History Project joins the UW–Madison community in mourning the death of Chancellor Emerita Rebecca M. Blank. We send our deepest condolences to her family and friends and to all those who are affected by her passing. We are deeply grateful for her work in commissioning the Public History Project, and we hope to continue the legacy of that work for years to come. (From Instagram)

Staff of the UW–Madison Public History Project