March 3, 2023


This account began with one that Becky herself wrote to help prepare an obituary. Hanns and Emily have extended it to provide more detail about her life and work.

Rebecca Margaret Blank was born on Sept. 19, 1955 in Columbia, Missouri. She was the daughter of Uel and Vernie Blank. Her middle name recalls her father’s sister, who died in childbirth before Becky was born.

Both parents came from Missouri farm families. Both were graduates of the University of Missouri who had begun their careers working in Cooperative Extension, working with farm families to improve their standard of living. Her brother Grant was two years old when she was born.

As a child, she lived in Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota. This path followed from her father’s pursuit of a doctorate in agriculture economics at Michigan State University and then as he continued his career in Cooperative Extension, first with Michigan State University and then the University of Minnesota. She took swimming lessons in Lake Superior while her family lived in Marquette, Michigan. Her days at Glencairn Elementary School in East Lansing made her a “loyal Glencairn bear,” in the words of the school song. Piano lessons in East Lansing were 15 minutes, twice a week, before school with Mrs. Trout.

Every year included at least two trips to visit family in Missouri, in places like Femme Osage, where family members had lived since before the Civil War. Becky’s mother, Vernie, had strong bonds to her parents’ families, Backhaus on her father’s side and Brueggeman on her mother’s side.

Her middle and high school years were in Roseville, Minnesota, adjacent to St. Paul, where she graduated from Alexander Ramsey High School. Her high school debate career culminated in taking first place in extemporaneous speaking at the 1973 National Forensic League’s national competition. Both Becky and another Alexander Ramsey student, Susan Pearsall, had qualified for the national competition. The intensity and stress of preparing for the competition is the origin story of Becky and Susan becoming best friends, a friendship commemorated with trips on decennial birthdays.

While in high school, she had what she thought of as her first real job: working at a Mister Donut bakery. Organ lessons gave her the skills to take a Sunday job as organist for an Episcopal congregation.

She graduated from the University of Minnesota summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in economics. She got a sense of what computing was like at that time through a student job to drive a van between the campus and the campus center, shuttling both people and decks of the paper cards used to store programs and data. A program organized through the University YMCA at the University of Minnesota placed students with area businesses. Through this, Becky spent time at General Mills shadowing the staff person who provided the written voice of all communications from Betty Crocker.

After graduation, she worked for the Data Resources, Inc. Chicago office. DRI offered clients a macroeconomic model of the economy, which businesses could use to support decisions at a time of rapid changes in inflation and interest rates. Bruce Rauner, later governor of Illinois, was one of the fresh-from-college research assistants sent to work with her.

She completed her PhD in Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983. Hers was a less traveled academic path. One of her field exams was income distribution. She participated in the alternative economics student study group. Early on, she became a research assistant for Hank Farber. He later chaired her dissertation committee. Along the way she acquired FORTRAN programming skills, a necessity if one wanted to do applied empirical work that used techniques that had not yet become part of libraries of routines that were available thanks to the work of others.


When she completed her degree, she took the best offer she got, an appointment in the department of economics and the school of public and international affairs (then called the Woodrow Wilson School) at Princeton University. Her first year, she taught undergraduate labor economics and a course on poverty in the policy school. Before the wide availability of personal computers, doing empirical economics meant submitting jobs to be run on a mainframe computer. Computer time pricing favored running jobs in the late-night hours, making her a frequent late-night presence at the Princeton computing center. She did her first work outside the world of peer-reviewed journal articles with papers like one that she wrote with Alan Blinder entitled “Macroeconomics, Income Distribution, and Poverty.” It appeared as a chapter in Fighting Poverty: What Works and What Doesn’t, edited by Sheldon Danziger, then of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty.

Her next academic appointment was at Northwestern University, and it came with tenure. Her recruitment was a part of the School of Education and Social Policy’s effort to build faculty for a new Human Development and Social Policy doctoral program. Her doctoral students included Rebecca London, now an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, University of California at Santa Cruz, and Susan Lloyd whose career in philanthropy included ten years as executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation in Milwaukee. Becky was the only economist in her SESP department. She later moved part of her tenure home to the Department of Economics, a place where she had more colleagues, including Joe Altonji, later her co-author on what might be her most cited paper, “Race and gender in the labor market,” a chapter in the Handbook of Labor Economics (Elsevier Science, 1999).

While at Northwestern, she spearheaded the proposal for federal funding of a center for poverty research that would be joint with the University of Chicago. The proposal for a center that would involve such Northwestern faculty as Christopher (Sandy) Jencks and University of Chicago faculty like William Julius Wilson brought together an “all star” team that won the competition. Becky ran the Northwestern side of the Northwestern-University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research.

Tenure and the support available to Northwestern faculty affiliated with the Institute for Policy Research allowed her to pursue a book project, published as It Takes A Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty (Princeton University Press, 1997).

During this period, she received the David Kershaw Prize, annually awarded by the Association for Public Policy and Management to honor persons who, before the age of 40, have made distinguished contributions to the field of public policy analysis and management.

After a period of government service, she became Dean of the University of Michigan’s newly created School of Public Policy and was instrumental in renaming it the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. That brought her the opportunity to get to know President Ford, his family and his circle of friends and government colleagues. She substantially expanded the size of the school and its programs, and she raised funds to build an iconic building for the Ford School. The University of Michigan conferred the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa for her work in higher education and public policy in December 2022.

Serving as dean did not keep her from work as a scholar. She accepted the challenge to write a series of essays in dialogue with William McGurn, published by the Brookings Institution Press in 2004 as Is the Market Moral? Her first research assistant, Lucie Schmidt, is now Robert A. Woods Professor at Smith College. With another, Heidi Shierholz, she wrote a chapter, “Exploring gender differences in employment and wage trends among less-skilled workers,” for a book she co-edited with Sheldon Danziger and Bob Schoeni, Working Poor: How Economic Policy Changes Are Affecting Low-Wage Workers (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).

After the University of Michigan, she worked at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., before entering the Obama administration.

Public servant

She interspersed her academic work with government service and was dedicated to improving public policy and its implementation. While working as a senior staff member on the Council of Economic Advisors for the George H.W. Bush administration, she met the man she would marry, her husband Hanns Kuttner. She wrote, “His support was instrumental in making [my] career possible.” She returned to the CEA in the Clinton administration in 1997, serving as one of three Senate-confirmed members under Janet Yellen’s chairmanship.

In 2009, she accepted the role of Under Secretary for Economic Affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce, where, among other things, she oversaw the Census Bureau during the 2010 census. This role made her a policymaker, who was the object of advice she had offered as an academic. She had served on a National Academies’ expert panel that produced the landmark 1995 report, Measuring Poverty: A New Approach. The report recommended that the outdated official poverty measure be replaced by a new measure that took account of such anti-poverty programs as tax credits and food stamps. She subsequently chaired a National Academies workshop to review progress in evaluating the 1995 report’s recommendations. As Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs, she facilitated the creation of an Interagency Technical Working Group to provide guidance to the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics for a Supplemental Poverty Measure, based on the 1995 recommendations. Production of the SPM as a “supplement,” beginning in 2011, avoided the political problems of trying to replace the official poverty measure outright. Today, the SPM is the poverty measure of choice for researchers and policymakers.

She then moved into the role of Deputy Secretary at Commerce and served more than a year as Acting Secretary. As deputy and acting secretary she found herself facing a new set of issues that arose from throughout the department’s diverse portfolio. She described Commerce as largely a technical agency, as home to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, the Patent and Trademark Office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She faced challenges like NOAA’s need for a new satellite. If funding did not get approved, data about a substantial portion of the United States would be unavailable for weather forecasts. As deputy, she had a seat on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the body has the authority to review certain foreign investments in the American economy. As acting secretary, she led trade missions to Africa and South America. She left in June 2013 for the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which, she noted, had a much smaller budget than the Department of Commerce.

Higher education leader

She served as Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 2013 to 2022. At Madison, she created new programs to fund low-income students, expanded faculty and student diversity, led a record-breaking fundraising campaign, increased the number of undergraduate students, created a School of Computer and Data and Information Science and successfully navigated the university through the COVID-19 pandemic. She described her work during the pandemic as the hardest work for the longest period she had ever done. She also worked to improve the administrative functioning of the university and put the university on a sound financial footing.

One role for the chancellor is to cheer on Badger sports teams. Among the highlights of her time as chancellor was attendance at multiple college football bowl games, including the Rose Bowl and two NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournaments. She most enjoyed women’s volleyball games.

Becky became part of several Madison and Wisconsin communities. Like every UW–Madison chancellor or president for more than the past one hundred years, she was part of the Town and Gown dinner group, as well as another dinner group, the Old Warre Club. She became a member of the Wisconsin Chapter of the International Women’s Forum, a network of over 7,500 women leaders in 33 countries who work to advance women’s leadership globally and locally and champion equity worldwide.

Governance at the University of Wisconsin–Madison makes the chancellor the point where the university and multiple related organizations intersect. One reader found this paragraph boring, but governance participation is a large part of the UW-Madison chancellor’s job. The chancellor is the sole university employee on the board of trustees of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. On the University Research Park board, which she chaired, she and a member of the Board of Regents were the two board members with university roles. The legislation which created the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Authority made the chancellor a member of the board that governs the authority. She was additionally a member of the board’s executive committee. While not a member of the board, she regularly attended the meetings of the board of directors of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association. She served as a member of the Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C) which has authority for governance of the Big Ten Conference. She was the COP/C chair at the time she left Wisconsin and intended to continue at Northwestern. She served a term on the board of directors of the NCAA as the Big Ten Conference representative. The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce traditionally makes the chancellor a member of its board.

In higher education, she served a term on the board of directors of the American Association of Universities and became a member of the membership committee, the sole AAU committee whose members serve without fixed-length appointments. She served on the board of directors of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and was the APLU board chair at the time she left the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Outside higher education, she served on the board of directors of MDRC, an education and social policy research organization, and Ithaka Harbors, the parent organization of the digital library website JSTOR, best known for making the entire run of academic journals available on every user’s desk. She also served on the board of governors of TIAA, an organization created to offer a sustainable retirement system for teachers in higher education. The board of governors has responsibility to see that TIAA remains true to its mission.

In 2021, the American Economic Association gave her the Distinguished Economist award, making her the first University of Wisconsin–Madison economist to receive the award.

Wherever she lived, she found a church home. In Cambridge, it was First Church in Cambridge. One of her graduate school housing arrangements was as one of a series of graduate students who lived on the third floor of the First Church parsonage. In Chicago, it was St. Pauls United Church of Christ, where she and Hanns wed. In her early tours through Washington, D.C., it was First Congregational United Church of Christ. In Ann Arbor, it was First Presbyterian Church. She served on the Session, the church’s governing body, and co-chaired the social concerns committee. In Bethesda, it was Westmoreland United Church of Christ. In Madison, it was First Congregational United Church of Christ.

For many years, the alarm would go off at 5:40 a.m., and Becky would head to the gym. Her daily routine had her on the treadmill for 30 minutes, watching television, most often Joe and Mika on MSNBC on weekdays, then doing some arm exercises or stretches, and then time to go home to face the day.

Becky was an avid crossword and jigsaw puzzle enthusiast. Her family took frequent hikes and bicycle trips. The SARS-COV-2 pandemic provided opportunity and reason to see more of Dane and adjacent counties on foot. Her favorite bicycle routes were the Capital City State Trail around Madison and, for a shorter route, a loop from Olin House through the university’s Arboretum. She was a great fruit pie maker and never lost her love of doughnuts, with raised glazed her favorite.

Becky was predeceased by her father, Uel Blank. She is survived by her mother, Vernie, 101 years old at this writing, her husband Hanns and daughter Emily, a student in the Ford School’s Master’s in Public Policy program. She is also survived by her brother Grant, sister-in-law Denise, and nieces Petra and Mara; sister-in-law Heidi Kuttner; one cousin on her father’s side, Jim Laflen and Jim’s sister, Ginny Phillips; and many cousins on her mother’s side. They are the children of her mother’s older brother, the late Emmet Backhaus; Virginia Backhaus, Randall Backhaus, Ronald Backhaus, Renard Backhaus, Deborah Kelley and Susan (Larry) Kleeberger; her mother’s younger sister, Stella Nadler and Stella’s children, Steven (Starla), Gordon (Ramona) and Lowell; and her mother’s late youngest sister, Ardell Martin, Paul (Sharon) Martin, Nancy (Tom) Nelson, Nathan (Susan) Martin, Philip (Heather) and John (Lisa) Martin.

Helpful information came from Connie Citro and Susan Pearsall.