La Follette remembers Rebecca Blank

Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank sits at her desk.

Rebecca Blank, UW–Madison Chancellor Emerita and former La Follette School faculty member, was an economist and educator who made major contributions to scholarship that helped to reduce poverty and inequality. She joined the La Follette School faculty when she came to UW–Madison in 2013 to serve as chancellor. Under Blank’s leadership, the university created new programs, including Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which guarantees scholarships and grants to pay for tuition and fees for lower-income students across the state. Blank died February 17, 2023 at the age of 67 after a battle with cancer.

“Becky’s career truly embodied the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea,” said La Follette School Director and Professor Susan Webb Yackee. “Her policy research and advocacy directly contributed to improvements in the measurement of poverty, which has helped to improve countless lives. She was a wonderful role model and mentor, and I’ve always admired her for the strong leadership she provided to the university.”

Blank graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in economics and later completed her PhD in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Throughout her career, she held many high-level positions in both academia and government. She served as a senior staff member on the Council of Economic Advisors during both the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. In 2009, she accepted the role of Under Secretary for Economic Affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce under President Barack Obama, and she later served more than a year as Acting Secretary in the Obama cabinet.

For decades, Blank worked to reform the government’s definition of the poverty line. Her new definition helped to debunk claims that programs created to help the poor were not working by showing that the existing poverty measure was flawed. The new Supplemental Poverty Measure was called “the most important new development in poverty measurement in over 30 years” by Robert Greenstein, founder of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This more accurate measure of poverty garnered bipartisan support and helped the Census Bureau determine that the 2021 child tax credit brought child poverty to its lowest level on record.

In 2018, Blank gave the La Follette School’s Offner Lecture on How Universities Can Lead in Addressing Inequality at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. In the talk, Blank discussed how universities can be more accessible to a diverse population of students, a cause she advocated for at UW–Madison throughout her time as chancellor. With an economic lens, she outlined the issues that have contributed to inequality in education and explained that, “for the average student, college is more valuable than it’s ever been.”

“We want the benefits of (economic) growth the be experienced broadly in the population, but that is not what has happened in recent decades,” noted Blank in her lecture. She went on to discuss strategies for retaining students through graduation and the Bucky’s Tuition Promise program—”which truthfully should have been called ‘Becky’s Tuition Promise,’” because of the way Blank championed the program, according to La Follette School Professor Tim Smeeding.

In 2021, Blank was named a Distinguished Fellow by the American Economic Association, a prestigious award that recognizes the lifetime research contributions of distinguished economists from the United States and Canada. Blank was also recognized by the Posse Foundation in 2021 for her support of the organization, which identifies and trains public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership skills who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes and gives them opportunities to pursue academic excellence.

In November of 2021, Blank announced that she would be leaving UW–Madison to become president at Northwestern University. However, she was unable to assume that role due to her cancer diagnosis.

Blank published close to 100 articles and several books over the course of her career. “One of my fondest memories (of Rebecca Blank) was the paper that Becky co-authored with a group of us to gauge the effect of the War on Poverty from 1960 to the mid-2010s,” says Smeeding. The 2015 paper, titled “The War on Poverty: Measurement, Trends, and Policy,” was co-authored by La Follette School Professors Emeritus Robert Haveman and Geoffrey Wallace, as well as Smeeding, Blank, and Robert Moffitt, professor of economics at Johns Hopkins. It was one of Blank’s last publications before she announced her plans to leave UW. “Becky was always the first one ready with her assigned sections—working onto the night while also being chancellor!” says Smeeding.

Blank will be remembered by the La Follette School community for her dedication to improving policy and its implementation and her many contributions to the school and UW–Madison. Stories and photos of Blank can be found on UW–Madison’s Remembering Rebecca Blank website. The university memorialized Blank at a March 4 memorial service on campus.

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