A ‘new chapter’ for UW–Madison: Jennifer L. Mnookin installed as institution’s 30th leader
The University of Wisconsin–Madison formally installed Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin as its 30th leader on April 14, 2023, during a jubilant and majestic investiture ceremony steeped in tradition yet focused squarely on building a strong future for the university.
“This is a new chapter in the UW–Madison story,” said UW System President Jay Rothman, who called Mnookin “the right leader at the right time” while welcoming more than 400 people to the Hamel Music Center and others watching on livestream.
The ceremony capped a week of special investiture events that celebrated both Mnookin’s ascendency to the chancellorship and the university’s history of curiosity-driven yet revolutionary research, esteemed public service and teaching excellence.
It was a week that mixed formality with fun. There was pomp and circumstance befitting one of the country’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. And there was lightness and levity — cherished Badger traits as well. Thousands of people flooded Library Mall on a glorious, 80-degree spring day for a post-ceremony picnic that turned into a giant, sunshine-fueled party.
At the center of the week’s festivities was the investiture ceremony, one of the oldest traditions in academia. Usually held during the first year of new leadership, the ceremony confers the authority and symbols of the office to a new academic leader and celebrates the university’s great distinction and future possibilities.
Mnookin, formerly dean of the UCLA School of Law, officially began her tenure as UW–Madison chancellor August 4, 2022. She told the crowd she was “tremendously grateful and humbled” to be given the opportunity to lead such an incredible university, adding she was “acutely aware that I stand on the shoulders of so very, very many others.”
Mnookin extolled the virtues of the Wisconsin Idea, saying it is “both anchor and propeller, keeping us grounded to our mission while creating that multiplier effect that allows us to do truly great things at scale. And it must remain at the heart of our goals and aspirations for our beloved university.”
The ceremony began with a procession of delegates from higher education, elected office, UW System leadership, the UW System Board of Regents, faculty, staff and student leadership, all in academic regalia.
More than 50 universities and colleges sent delegates, including Harvard University, represented by Robert H. Mnookin, the Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the chancellor’s father.
Other luminaries included Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (a three-time Badger) and Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist and UCLA Professor Andrea Ghez, a close friend of Mnookin’s who headlined an academic symposium Thursday about big discoveries as part of investiture week. Four former UW–Madison chancellors spoke during the ceremony, three in person (Donna Shalala, David Ward and John Wiley) and one by video (Carolyn “Biddy” Martin).
Shalala, chancellor from 1988 to 1993 and the first woman to serve in the role, drew laughs as she scanned the audience for her “best friend” from when she was on campus, Bucky Badger. “He was the only person that never talked back to me,” she said.
Rothman said Mnookin brings incredible intellect to the role and a wealth of experience as a faculty member and leader at some of the nation’s preeminent public universities. Evers praised Mnookin for her eager interest in and appreciation for the Wisconsin way of life and its traditions, including the revered Wisconsin Idea. He said he’s excited to partner with her to continue to invest in the university’s success.
University Committee Chair Lauren Papp spoke on behalf of the faculty, and Ndemazea Fonkem, chair of Associated Students of Madison, offered remarks from a student perspective. Master of fine arts student Aurora Shimshak recited a poem she wrote for the ceremony, and an interlude showcased student musicians.
In a video just prior to the start of the ceremony, nearly two dozen people offered well-wishes and thoughts on Mnookin’s leadership, including longtime friend Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania. The two met in the 1990s while on the faculty of the University of Virginia School of Law. Magill praised her friend’s indefatigable energy, problem-solving skills and legal acumen.
“Lawyers are particularly trained in the capacity to see all sides of an issue and appreciate where people are coming from who have very different perspectives,” Magill said. “I think that’s a really important asset to have as a leader, and Jennifer certainly has it.”
Kacie Lucchini Butcher, director of the UW–Madison Public History Project, said in the video that she was excited that, from the beginning, Mnookin came to campus with an open mind and a strong desire to learn and listen. That included learning about the Public History Project and its mission.
“I think that really speaks to her leadership skills,” Lucchini Butcher said. “She’s willing to take risks, she’s willing to do something bold and new, and she’s willing to stand by it.”
Keynote speaker Michael Schill, president of Northwestern University, recruited Mnookin and her husband, political scientist Joshua Foa Dienstag, to join the UCLA faculty nearly 20 years ago. Confidantes who talk weekly, they now both lead Big Ten universities.
Schill said the importance of higher education, both in educating the next generation and as an engine for discovery and innovation, could not be greater, yet the challenges are more difficult than they have been in decades.
“I can’t remember another time when we’ve been under the microscope so intensely,” he said. “So many of our nation’s problems are playing out on our campuses today.”
One of the biggest challenges, he said, is the growing lack of trust in higher education.
“So thus, the stakes are high,” he said. “With all of the challenges and opportunities we face, leadership matters. And I cannot imagine any university having a better leader than Jennifer Mnookin.”
He described Mnookin as the very essence of an intellectual leader and said she has a knack for bringing people together across differences.
“She listens, she synthesizes the views of her community, all the while guided by an amazingly strong moral and academic compass. She is the perfect person to lead you through a period that requires the very best in a leader.”
He added that “there isn’t anyone who can pull off wearing red better than Jennifer.”
Karen Walsh, president of the Board of Regents, placed the newly recast “Numen Lumen” medallion, bearing the official seal and motto of UW–Madison, on Mnookin’s shoulders, formally installing Mnookin as chancellor. Mnookin will wear the chancellor’s medallion at commencement and convocation events going forward.
In her remarks, Mnookin told stories of UW–Madison inventors, researchers and pathbreakers — stories, she said, that illustrate the “multiplier effect” of the university’s transformational work. She spoke of a young researcher named Tom Brock who would later become a UW–Madison professor. During a visit to Yellowstone National Park, Brock discovered a strain of bacteria in the park’s hot springs that no one had ever described. Many decades later, his discovery would be fundamental to the development of the PCR test for COVID-19. At the time, though, Brock said he was “just trying to find out what kind of weird critters were living in that boiling water.”
“Which strikes me as a very ‘Wisconsin’ thing to say!” Mnookin shared. “Then, as now, the University of Wisconsin–Madison is simultaneously exceptional and modest, driven not by a need for glory but by a dedication to excellence that is rooted in and grows from a trio of core commitments: to curiosity, to collaboration, and to service.”
Mnookin called upon the campus community to grow its ambitions in the years ahead, to do still more to multiply and amplify the university’s commitments to education, research and service. What will that mean?
“It will mean growing our faculty, with a special focus on strategic, cross-disciplinary hiring in places where we can move from good to great and from great to extraordinary,” she said.
“It will mean amplifying the impressive $1.3 billion in funded research we do each year.
“It will mean building deeper partnerships with industry and with communities all across the state.
“It will mean bringing creativity and bold ideas to the critical task of defining a liberal arts education for the 21st century and beyond.
“It will mean a renewed focus on helping our students, staff and faculty to flourish.”
Afterwards, Liam McLean, senior class president, said the investiture ceremony gave him new perspective on the university’s place in higher education.
“I teared up a little during some of the moments,” he said. “To have so many people from the Badger community in the same room really made me realize how much UW–Madison is at the forefront of so much that is happening in the country and in the world.”
Following the ceremony, Mnookin walked with friends and family members, including her husband and children Sophia and Isaac, to Library Mall, where the community picnic unfolded amid balloons, dancing and tunes provided by the UW Marching Band.
“How can you not come to a picnic on Library Mall on a day like today?” asked Bruce Beihoff of Madison, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UW–Madison in 1977 and called his experience on campus life-shaping. “I’ve always felt great about this university. This makes me feel even better.”
Senior Madelyn Vilker of Madison pronounced it a great vibe. “You’ve got the sun, DJay Mando, jazz guitars, balloons. I love that the university has a big free event like this for everyone, no strings attached.”
The picnic served as the big reveal for the new Babcock Dairy ice cream flavor named for the chancellor. Wait for it . . . Mnookie Dough. She took her first bite at the picnic and dubbed it dee-licious. “The caramel is a nice touch.”
Throughout the weeklong celebration, Mnookin expressed gratitude and awe. Following a blockbuster panel that featured six faculty and alumni discussing what motivates them, Mnookin said their insights outstripped the already high expectations she had for the event.
“Every one of your talks was thoughtful, inspiring, exhilarating,” she said. “It makes me very, very proud to be here and really inspired that all of you are Badgers and that I get to be one now, too.”