Commerce chief Rebecca Blank to lead University of Wisconsin at Madison


Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank arrives for a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office building in February. Blank will leave her post this summer to become chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The acting commerce secretary, Rebecca Blank, will leave her post in July to become chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The top job at commerce has been snakebit for President Obama, dating to the days before his first term. Obama’s first two choices for the position, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (D) and former New Hampshire governor Judd Gregg (R), both pulled out before the Senate could vote on them.

His eventual secretary, Gary Locke, left in 2011 to become ambassador to China. John Bryson took over but suffered a seizure in June and stepped down, leaving Blank as acting secretary. Obama has not yet nominated anyone to replace Bryson, who lasted less than a year in the job.

In a statement, Obama said Blank “has distinguished herself as a steady leader and a vital member of my economic team. A tireless advocate for American businesses, Becky has helped to increase our competitiveness, support our innovators and entrepreneurs, and bring good-paying jobs back to our shores.”

Blank is a labor economist and the former head of the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and was once on the shortlist to lead Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. She was confirmed as deputy commerce secretary last spring.

In an e-mail to commerce staff Monday, Blank made clear she expects a new secretary to be confirmed before she moves on to Madison.

“I am not going anywhere in the near future,” she wrote, adding later: “I expect to welcome a new Secretary of Commerce before I leave.”

Blank’s appointment at the university must be approved by the Board of Regents for the University of Wisconsin system. On Monday afternoon, the university announced a search committee’s recommendation that she be hired.

“Dr. Blank is uniquely prepared to lead UW-Madison, coming to us with broad national and international experience in roles where big science and big research intersect with job creation and commercialization,” Kevin P. Reilly, president of the university system, said in a news release. “She also has a strong track record of educational innovation, having created interdisciplinary graduate programs, and a new undergraduate public policy major, at the University of Michigan.”

Blank was unavailable for comment and is traveling on Commerce Department business in South America, where she is co-chairman of the U.S.-Brazil CEO Forum.

Her background runs solidly through the Big 10. Blank earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota (but detoured to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for her doctorate). She taught from 1989 to 1999 at Northwestern University, including a stint as director of its Joint Center for Poverty Research. She was at Michigan from 1999 to 2008. In the late 1990s, she served on the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton.

Her academic work has focused heavily on poverty and government assistance to the poor.

In the Wisconsin news release, Blank called the school “one of the foremost public universities, demonstrating that a top research institution can also provide educational access to students from all backgrounds.”

She added: “The University is integral to the economic future of the state and must continue to be a strong partner in the effort to create jobs and stimulate economic growth.”

Jim Tankersley is the editor of Storyline, where he explains complex public policies and illuminates their human impact.
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