MADISON – The University of Wisconsin-Madison welcomed its new leader Thursday on historic Bascom Hill with ice cream made from the campus dairy shop and the Badger Band playing “On, Wisconsin!”
The sun shined. Students played cornhole. Staff debated which Babcock ice cream flavor was the best.
“We’re so happy to have you here,” one employee exclaimed to new Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin on her first official day on the job. It was a refrain echoed by hundreds who attended the ice cream social.
The more difficult meet-and-greets will take place just down the street at the state Capitol in the coming weeks when Mnookin introduces herself to Republicans who, within hours of learning about her hire, said she was a “woke radical,” “a blatant partisan selection” and “a ridiculous choice” to lead Wisconsin’s flagship university.
“The person they described wasn’t really how I think about myself,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a Thursday interview. “But I’m looking forward to getting to know folks who made some assumptions about who I am and getting a chance to get to know them and talk to them.”
Mnookin, 55, brings a background Republicans have characterized as out-of-touch and elitist. She grew up in the Berkeley-Palo Alto, California, area, earned degrees from both Harvard and Yale, and has spent almost her entire career in academia. She said her previous exposure to Wisconsin was limited to a few visits when she lived in Chicago in the late 1990s.
Mnookin just stepped down from a seven-year tenure leading the University of California, Los Angeles law school where she defended critical race theory and donated a couple thousand dollars to Democratic causes.
None of these details will score her political points with Republican lawmakers.
“I hope they haven’t made up their mind,” Mnookin said.
She’s already had calls with the two Republican lawmakers who lead the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, according to UW-Madison officials. About 16% of UW-Madison’s budget comes from the state.
State Sen. Howard Marklein of Spring Green confirmed he spoke with Mnookin and said he is scheduled to meet with her in his district this fall but didn’t elaborate on what he thought of her.
The other budget co-chair, Rep. Mark Born of Beaver Dam, did not return a request for comment on the chancellor. Neither did Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, nor leading GOP gubernatorial candidates Rebecca Kleefisch and Tim Michels.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, did not criticize Mnookin back in May when she was named to the post. Spokesperson Adam Gibbs said the senator wants to meet with her before offering comment.
“I really hope that when people get a chance to talk to me and know me and see me in action they will see that I am somebody who both believes in dialogue across differences and connection with others and also that my own values are not necessarily what they’re presuming,” Mnookin said.
Tackling affordability, expanding research
Like her predecessors, Mnookin must find a way to satisfy stakeholders with often conflicting priorities. There is the Republican-controlled Legislature, with members who view UW-Madison as a place of liberal indoctrination. There is the faculty, which feels differently on that front, students who want the campus to be more diverse and affordable, and a UW Board of Regents dominated by Democrats — at least half of whom may lose their seats if a Republican wins the governor’s race in November.
Mnookin is the fourth woman to lead UW-Madison, an institution with a $3.4 billion operating budget and more than 45,000 students.
Among her top priorities are expanding research and making sure a degree is affordable to students, especially those from Wisconsin.
Undergraduates from out of state will pay nearly $40,000 to attend UW-Madison this school year. A Wisconsin student will pay about a quarter of that price thanks to a tuition freeze that is entering its 10th year.
UW leaders have long advocated for lifting the freeze, warning that continuing it will harm educational quality. Mnookin takes the same position but noted that the decision is ultimately not hers. When and how to lift the freeze should be studied carefully, she said, with a focus on how to protect affordability for low-income students.
Mnookin wants to focus on creating a strong sense of belonging on campus. While she said that’s often a shorthand for making students of color feel more welcome, she said belonging goes beyond race to include religion, sexual orientation and geography.
Welcome to Wisconsin
One of five finalists for the chancellor job, Mnookin was unanimously offered the position at a $750,000 base salary. She takes the reins from Rebecca Blank, who retired in May after nine years at the helm and is now battling cancer.
She and her husband, Joshua Foa Dienstag, arrived in Wisconsin in late July and have moved into Olin House, the official chancellor’s residence. They have two children, a daughter who recently graduated from college and a son who is still in college.
Dienstag, a political theorist, is joining UW-Madison’s political science department as a full professor. He will earn $275,400, which is about $100,000 more than the median salary for full professors in the department, but about $30,000 less than what UW-Madison officials said he would have earned at UCLA this year.
Those who know Mnookin well, like UCLA colleague and friend Lynn Vavreck, said she’s much more “girl-next-door” than her pedigree indicates. Mnookin hits the farmer’s market every week, has “excellent taste” in cheeses and a knack for finding the best guacamole.
Vavreck admires Mnookin’s curiosity and vision. Perhaps most surprising to her is Mnookin’s lack of ego.
“And boy is that rare at a university!” she quipped.
Wisconsin shouldn’t worry about Mnookin not having strong Midwestern ties, Vavreck said.
“She is all in on figuring out what’s our leverage and where can we really become great,” Vavreck said. “She’s the person you want to take (UW-Madison) there.”
Jill Horwitz, who Mnookin recruited to UCLA about a decade ago and recently served as a vice dean in the law school, said Mnookin is a leader who “really sweats the details.” The law school, for example, operates on a different calendar than the rest of the university and was forced to respond much more quickly when COVID-19 hit.
She said Mnookin anticipated the problems and positioned the school to act as seamlessly as possible in a pandemic.
During the COVID pandemic, in late 2020, Mnookin donated a kidney to her dad. The experience was deeply meaningful and also led her to consider a career change. She contemplated writing a book exploring questions around the science, law and culture of organ transplants.
Instead, she’s here at UW-Madison.
“Is there another world where I could have taken a break from academic leadership and written that book?” Mnookin said. “There is, but I’m thrilled to be in this world and to be here right now. One of the things about being an academic leader is that you are supporting the incredible work that many, many people are doing rather than focusing primarily on your own work. It’s a much more collective job and I find that thrilling.”