In Memoriam: Rebecca M. Blank, 1955-2023

February 21, 2023

The Russell Sage Foundation is deeply saddened to report the passing of renowned economist Rebecca M. Blank on February 17, 2023. Her research focused on pressing public policy issues including poverty reduction, low-income workers, and inequality. She was dedicated to expanding access to higher education and prioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Blank served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 2013 to 2022, when she stepped down to serve as the first female president of Northwestern University. Her illness forced her to step aside from her new position at Northwestern in July 2022. Prior to her tenure as chancellor at UW-Madison, she taught at Princeton University and Northwestern University. She also served as a dean at the University of Michigan and was the Robert S. Kerr senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Blank served as Acting Secretary of Commerce and Deputy Secretary of Commerce during the Obama administration and led former President Obama’s Innovation Advisory Board. She also served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration, and as a senior staff economist on the Council of Economic Advisers under the George H.W. Bush administration.

Former President Barack Obama said of Blank: "Dr. Blank's four years serving in my administration was just one part of her extraordinary life. Whether in government or academia, she devoted her career to reducing inequality and increasing opportunities for others, and made everyone around her better." (From Twitter)

Blank has a longstanding relationship with the Russell Sage Foundation. She authored, edited, and contributed to numerous RSF volumes. Blank was co-author of A Working Nation (with Joseph Blasi, Douglas Kruse, Karen Lynn-Dyson, William A. Niskane, and David T. Ellwood), co-editor of Insufficient Funds (with Michael S. Barr), Working and Poor (with Sheldon Danziger and Robert F. Schoeni), and Finding Jobs (edited with David Card), and was a contributing author to Changing Poverty, Changing Policies, Making the Work-Based Safety Net Work Better, Public Policy and Income Distribution, The Roaring Nineties, Gender and Family Issues in the Workplace, Generating Jobs. She was also an RSF research grant recipient.

RSF President Sheldon Danziger said of Blank’s passing: “Becky Blank was admired by everyone lucky enough to know her. She was an internationally recognized poverty researcher, a dedicated public servant who pursued evidence-based policy solutions, and a visionary academic leader. She was also an insightful, thoughtful colleague and inspiring teacher and mentor. From the moment I met her in the early 1980s, I was amazed by her hard work, boundless energy, ethical compass, and ability to maintain her modest Midwestern demeanor. Becky will be sorely missed by her colleagues, students and all whose lives were improved by her economic insights and many contributions.”

Blank was a highly respected scholar; in 2021, she was awarded a lifetime achievement award as a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association. She was also greatly admired for her leadership in higher education and her emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She was the creator of Bucky’s Tuition Promise, a program that guarantees full tuition for qualifying undergraduate Wisconsin residents. Blank also launched the Public History Project at UW-Madison, which confronted the school’s history of racial discrimination and the Raimey-Noland Campaign, which supports research on social and racial justice issues and works to increase the number of students and faculty of color. In 2021, she was awarded the prestigious Posse Star award for her leadership and her commitment to advancing equity and inclusion in higher education.

She is survived by her husband Hanns Kuttner and her daughter Emily. The foundation extends its deepest sympathy to Rebecca’s family for their loss.


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