Incoming Northwestern president Rebecca Blank transfers within the Big Ten West

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer

Northwestern’s newest president comes to Chicago’s Big Ten Team from one of its biggest competitors — Wisconsin. 

Rebecca Blank, currently chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Madison, joins NU after overseeing one of the best eras in the history of Wisconsin sports. 

In the two highest revenue-producing sports, the Badgers have taken off throughout Blank’s tenure. They won four division titles in football, and in men’s basketball, they reached two Final Fours in addition to winning a Big Ten Regular Season Championship.

Blank also took part in the controversial decision to cancel and then reinstate the 2020 football season. Additionally, she has also expressed hesitation about current name, image and likeness policies —  legislation that was passed in Illinois in July allowing collegiate athletes to profit off their appearance and name.

Blank will replace outgoing University President Morton Schapiro, who has been vocal about his passion for Northwestern sports and has frequented the sidelines at football games with coach Pat Fitzgerald. 

Under Schapiro’s leadership, the school constructed a new indoor training facility on Lake Michigan, renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena, built the new Henry Crown Sports Pavilion and secured funding for long-awaited renovations to Ryan Field. 

The only private school in the Big Ten, NU has a smaller enrollment with significantly lower football attendance rates compared to Wisconsin. Average attendance at Camp Randall in 2018 was 77,153, its lowest in 20 years. Even at a peak in 2018, average reported attendance at Ryan Field in 2018 only reached 43,873. (The stadium only holds 49,256 people.) 

Blank was part of the group of Big Ten presidents and chancellors who made the initial decision to cancel the 2020 Big Ten football season, and then to reinstate the season. The university leaders faced scrutiny for communicating about the decision to reinstate the season on a private portal, exempt from open information laws. 

“I would be delighted to share information, but perhaps we can do this through the Big Ten portal, which will assure confidentiality?” Blank responded in an email chain begun in August by Michigan President Mark Schlissel that was obtained by the Washington Post.

Since 2021, Blank has served as the president of the Big Ten Conference Council of Presidents/Chancellors, a role held by Schapiro before her. She is also on the NCAA Board of Governors. 

Blank also testified in front of Congress in September 2020 about her opposition to direct payments from universities to college athletes and restrictions she favored for NIL legislation, which went into effect in the NCAA this summer. Those concerns included the separation of NIL opportunities from recruiting, implementation of antitrust exceptions for the NCAA.

The main benefit these students take away is their educational degree. It’s not about coming here to earn money and be an employee,” Blank said at the hearing.

In the news release announcing Blank as Northwestern’s newest president, Blank spoke about her focus on student athletes as students.

“I am deeply committed to the idea of student athletes,” Blank said in the release. “Athletics teaches focus, teamwork, all qualities that benefit students in their future careers. When you compete, you should compete to win; but we should always put the health and well-being of our students ahead of athletic success. These are students, not professional athletes.”

Blank also led the search for Wisconsin’s new athletic director after long-time athletic director Barry Alvarez retired this year. Northwestern recently hired its own new athletic director, Derrick Gragg. 

Both Blank and Gragg have experience working directly with the NCAA, with Blank on the Board of Governors and Gragg as the NCAA’s senior vice president of inclusion, education and community engagement. 

Blank will oversee the early tenure of the new athletic director, in addition to the Ryan Field renovation, as some of her first tasks. Recently, Blank oversaw the beginning of renovation projects at Camp Randall Stadium and the Kohl Center, starting in 2019. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @gablcarroll