New UW-Madison chancellor says she can ‘find common ground’ with hostile Republican legislators

By: - May 17, 2022 2:39 pm

Jennifer L. Mnookin is set to become the next chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Mnookin is currently the dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). (PHOTO BY MAX S. GERBER FOR UW–MADISON)

It didn’t take long after the University of Wisconsin System announced Dr. Jennifer Mnookin as the new chancellor of UW-Madison on Monday for Republicans in the Legislature to attack her hiring as a “blatantly partisan” choice. 

Powerful Republicans, including the Assembly Speaker, the chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges and several Republican candidates for governor, attacked her previous statements on controversial topics such as critical race theory and threatened to cut funding for the entire system. 

On Tuesday, Mnookin spoke at a press conference about her desire to meet with those who disagree with her. 

“I’m really looking forward to talking to everyone, to meeting with everybody who’s game to talk to me and to work with everybody to find common ground and ways to move both the university and this great state forward,” Mnookin, the dean of the University of California, Los Angeles law school, said. “I’m gonna look forward to meeting people over a beer or cheese curds or just getting the chance to talk and to creating productive relationships both within the university and well beyond its borders.”

After her hiring was announced, Republicans immediately said it would harm the positive working relationship the Legislature had established with  the university under outgoing UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank,  who previously worked in the administration of President Barack Obama. 

“I am disappointed in the Board of Regents’ blatant partisan selection of Dr. Mnookin as the next leader for UW-Madison,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said. “In doing a simple search, you quickly find she wholeheartedly supports critical race theory being taught on campus, is in favor of widespread vaccine mandates, and also met with Hunter Biden in 2019 to entertain a proposal that he join the UCLA faculty to teach drug policy.”

“We deserve campus leaders who will encourage healthy debate, diverse thoughts and freedom of expression,” he continued. “Given her obvious viewpoints and political donations, Dr. Mnookin needs to prove she supports free speech on campus and not politically correct ideologies. After all the work of Tommy Thompson and Rebecca Blank that attempted to strengthen relationships between the university and the Legislature, this is a step backwards. I strongly hope the Board of Regents will reconsider their selection.”

That relationship has been marred by frequent attacks from Republicans over COVID-19 mitigation strategies, the perceived treatment of conservative students and the micromanaging of professors’ class syllabi. 

Even Tommy Thompson, the widely popular former four-term Republican governor, frequently sparred with the Legislature in his two years as interim system president — most vocally over his efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campuses across the state. 

Karen Walsh, vice president of the UW System Board of Regents and the chair of the search committee that selected Mnookin, said that regents appointed by both Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and former Republican Gov. Scott Walker unanimously selected Mnookin and the aims of the university are nonpartisan. 

“At the UW system, whether you’re in system administration, at a school or college or part of the Board of Regents, we don’t have the luxury of having a left side of the aisle and right side of the aisle,” Walsh said. “We have one aisle everybody travels down. We must work together.” 

“I think we see that in the vote for Chancellor Mnookin’s appointment,” she continued. “Gov. Evers’ appointed regents and Gov. Walker’s appointed regents voted unanimously to hire this person. We hire based on leadership qualities. We don’t have a political litmus test. I think the proof is in the pudding. For example, we hired the state’s longest serving GOP governor to run this system for two years and the folks that Tony Evers appointed were 100% behind that. On the other side of the aisle we hired Becky Blank who worked in the Obama administration. So we hire intelligence, innovation and leadership.”

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), chairs the Senate university committee, and in a statement calling Mnookin a “West Coast liberal” said that after her hiring, Republicans should refuse to fund the university system.

“If the Board of Regents truly believes that Mnookin is the best choice, then the next Republican governor and legislature should find it impossible to provide more taxpayer dollars or allow the board to increase tuition,” he said in a statement

Walsh said she thought Nass’ statement was a bluff and that Republicans won’t actually follow through with cutting university funding. 

“It’s a free country and people can say what they want,” Walsh said. “And honestly, I don’t take those comments very seriously. I don’t think that’s realistic. I would like for those folks to meet Chancellor Mnookin before they threaten our funding. I don’t think they really intend to do that. I think they’re much more interested in sitting in a room with us and talking about our differences, talking about our ideas. As I said before, we don’t have the luxury of having two sides of the aisle. If there is common ground in Wisconsin, certainly it must be the UW System. The Board of Regents feels very strongly about that and there is much common ground. Unfortunately, it’s a little sexier to talk about where we differ but honestly the core of what we need to accomplish together with the Legislature, with our constituencies, is that common ground of advancing the university system for the good of the state of Wisconsin. That’s our North Star and I really feel it’s the Legislature’s north star as well.”

The Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Professors, issued a statement defending  Mnookin and calling the threats inappropriate political interference in the system’s administration. 

“These threats are beyond the pale,” the faculty advocacy organization stated. “They constitute unacceptable political interference in the administration of the UW System, of a sort that has led to severe problems in the state university systems of Georgia and North Carolina, among others. They are deeply inappropriate, and an embarrassment to the entire state. We call on these elected officials and candidates to retract their statements and apologize.” 

Mnookin is set to begin as chancellor on Aug. 4.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

MORE FROM AUTHOR