NUGW: President-Elect Blank will continue Schapiro’s legacy of harm

Northwestern Graduate Workers, Op-Ed Contributor

On Oct. 11, Northwestern announced Rebecca Blank, currently chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as University President Morton Schapiro’s successor. President-elect Blank’s track record at UW-Madison is deeply concerning and very familiar. According to J. Landis Martin , chairman of the Board of Trustees, NU’s Search Committee sought a “transformational leader,” yet it selected a candidate who perpetuates the profits-over-wellness approach to university governance. 

The President Position Profile called for a candidate with a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Nothing about Blank’s record indicates transformational change on these fronts. On the contrary, her record shows Black and Indigenous students and staff that they can expect further institutional violence. We cannot reconstruct how the search committee saw the qualities they claimed to desire in Blank. She may be NU’s first woman president, but her identity does not automatically mean she creates equitable policies.

Schapiro leaves NU in disgrace, yet Blank’s actions at UW-Madison mirror Schapiro’s failures toward the University community in three major areas: privatizing university funding, violent and harmful responses to anti-racist activism and the undermining of faculty and labor groups. 

At UW-Madison, Blank sought to privatize university funding and push those costs onto students. She refused to broadly distribute American Rescue Plan funds to support students during the pandemic and stonewalled student leaders who tried to divert student segregated fee funding to COVID-19 relief. Furthermore, her administration tried to refuse pay to international students telecommuting during the pandemic

Blank also funded UW-Madison’s new recreation center by raising student fees instead of asking the lucrative Big Ten Athletics Department to contribute. Similarly, Schapiro also prioritized getting a return on stock investments over the wellbeing of the NU community. Our analysis of the University’s financial report details the continued growth of NU’s assets, in addition to the University’s recent announcement of its record fundraising. Yet, at the same time, NU’s administration frequently emphasizes the need for austerity, both before and during COVID-19. 

Blank’s response to anti-racist activism at UW-Madison has been violent and harmful. After the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Breonna Taylor, Blank made activists in UW-Madison’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color Coalition wait months to meet with her after promising two meetings a semester. She backed out of meetings where BIPOC students were presenting. She refused to listen to criticism from Black and Indigenous students about UW-Madison’s Police Department and the impact of a campus statue of Abraham Lincoln. Regarding the statue, Blank made the incredibly violent comment that “(Lincoln) could have killed more (Native Americans)”. Similarly, when repeatedly asked by students to remove a racist rock monument, she merely moved it to a different piece of university-owned property

This violence toward Black and Indigenous students has also been a common theme under Schapiro’s leadership at the University. He has repeatedly insulted and ignored BIPOC student activists and responded to protests outside his home by calling them abominations in an email to the entire NU community. Similar to Blank, he also made Black activists who proposed changes on campus after the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Breonna Taylor wait months to get a meeting with him.

Blank ignored and undermined faculty and labor groups on UW-Madison’s campus. Leaked emails reveal she lambasted faculty who wanted to maintain strong tenure policies at UW-Madison after the enactment of Wisconsin’s Act 55, which gutted tenure across the Wisconsin university system. 

Her actions at the time, in the words of one UW-Madison professor, “indicate that faculty voice is to be curtailed, managed, and controlled when it does not match our current leaders’ goals.” Her administration repeatedly ignored the graduate union’s concerns about increasing student fees. Her disdain for student and faculty input will continue Schapiro’s legacy at NU. As recently as this month, University personnel locked the NU Library Workers Union out of the provost’s office, sided with abusive subcontractors in negotiations with food service workers only to back down at the threat of a strike and used private security to prevent worker solidarity actions

NU Graduate Workers’s hopes remain in the solidarity movements led by students and employees of Northwestern. NUGW’s mission is to create better working and living conditions at the University, centering the needs of historically excluded and underrepresented graduate students, particularly Black, Indigenous, people of color, queer, transgender, undocumented, low-income, first-generation, parenting students and students living with disabilities or chronic illnesses. We work to build a fair, equitable NU from the grassroots up, whether or not the person at the top lends their support. We challenge President-elect Blank to show true support to labor movements and activists on campus, but we won’t be holding our breath. 

This letter was written by Northwestern University Graduate Workers. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.