MADISON – A little more than a year ago, Rebecca Blank visited the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus to listen to faculty members, entrepreneurs and business leaders. Her topic: What's working and what's not when it comes to the role of the university and the economy?
Blank was visiting at the time as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, an economic emissary of sorts for the Obama administration. When she returns sometime this spring, it will be as the UW-Madison's next and 32nd chancellor.
The meeting stuck in my mind because it was precisely the kind of discussion an economist like Blank might be expected to convene. Attended by 30 or so people, the meeting was built around five questions that will likely define, at least in part, how she views her new role:
* What will be the new areas of business and industry supported by science, technology, engineering and the mathematical sciences (for example, renewable energy and a smart grid), that will drive innovation and job creation in the coming weeks, months and years?
* What will be the critical skills necessary to drive job growth in these and traditional areas in the coming weeks, months and years?
* What roles do the universities, colleges, and technical colleges in Wisconsin play in fostering these critical skills in their undergraduate, masters and PhD students?
* Wisconsin has the highest concentration of manufacturing jobs in the country. What actions are most critical to maintain that base and expand it in the years ahead? Are there innovative ways that the manufacturing sector, colleges, universities and technical colleges can partner in order to best maintain and expand that base?
* How can we leverage public investment with private action to have the most impact on growth in innovations, jobs and the economy?
What mattered most about the conversation is less the proposed answers to those questions – it was a university setting, after all, so everyone seemed to have a different opinion – than how it was structured and carried out. Blank was genuinely engaged, eager to listen and not overly invested in the certainty of her own answers.
That approach will be critical as the UW-Madison confronts new challenges to its mission, which increasingly involves serving as a catalyst for economic growth and workforce development in Wisconsin. Blank's academic credentials – teaching stints at Michigan, Northwestern, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton – will give her standing among the UW-Madison's faculty, staff and students. Her experience in the private sector and Commerce, where she now serves as acting secretary, give her a national and world view that should resonate off campus, as well.
When the red puff of smoke emerged from Bascom Hall on Monday, Blank was in Brazil, co-chairing the 8th annual meeting of the U.S.-Brazil CEO Forum with other U.S. and Brazilian officials. During the trip, she talked about Columbia University's new Global Center in Rio de Janeiro as an example of how American higher education can facilitate growth at home and abroad.
Wisconsin is a state that is far more dependent on trade than most of its citizens realize. In 2012, Wisconsin ranked 18th among the 50 states in trade volume with $23.1 billion in total exports – up from $16.7 billion in 2009. Increasingly, foreign investors are also spotting reasons to put money into Wisconsin businesses. Business leaders in Wisconsin should find value in a chancellor who understands those pathways.
Blank was recommended for the chancellor's job by a special committee of the UW Board of Regents. The full board will vote on her recommendation April 5. While some members of the Legislature may question her ties to the Obama White House – and her past misgivings about the value of welfare reform – she is expected to win approval. Gov. Scott Walker's Monday endorsement of her selection is a sign that Walker-appointed Regents won't block her formal hiring.
Some observers wanted the UW-Madison to hire a business CEO, but that wasn't likely to happen because of the internal constituency. Others wanted a pure science and tech chancellor, which speaks to the power of the UW-Madison's $1-billion research budget. As an economist who understands the value of "big science" and the humanities, Becky Blank may walk the fine line needed on campus and beyond.
-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.