Incoming UW-Madison chancellor Jennifer Mnookin gave her first public press conference this morning, one day after the UW Board of Regents announced their hiring decision.
Mnookin is the current dean of UCLA’s law school in California, a position she’s held since 2015. Before that, she had taught law at UCLA since 2005.
Top GOP officials were quick to lambast the Board of Regents’ hiring decision. Republican frontrunner candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch took to Twitter yesterday, calling Mnookin a “woke radical,” and criticized the Board of Regents on the hire. She says that, if elected, she would prioritize appointing board members who value 21st century skills and free speech.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos castigated the decision, saying the decision walked back efforts made by Tommy Thompson and Rebecca Blank to strengthen relationships between UW-Madison and the state legislature.
Vos also took issue with Mnookin’s moderation of a panel on critical race theory and her support for vaccine mandates. And he criticized Mnookin for an alleged 2019 meeting with Hunter Biden to “entertain a proposal that he join the UCLA faculty to teach drug policy,” citing an article from The Daily Caller.
The Board of Regents say that there was nothing partisan about Mnookin’s hiring. Board Vice President Karen Walsh told reporters today that the decision to go with Mnookin was a unanimous decision, even among Regents appointed by former governor Scott Walker.
“It’s a free country and people can say what they want. Honestly, I don’t take those comments very seriously, I would like those folks to meet chancellor Mnookin before they threaten our funding,” Walsh says.
Vos fired back this afternoon, saying that stance was “the same arrogant and dismissive attitude that’s the problem on issues like campus free speech.”
While Mnookin herself skirted around directly mentioning the comments, she did say she is willing to talk with anyone about her office.
“I really look forward to talking with everyone, and meeting with everybody who wants to talk with me, and to find common ground and find ways to move both this university and this great state forward. I look forward to meeting people over a beer or cheese curds or just getting the chance to talk and create productive relationships, both within the university and beyond its borders,” Mnookin says.
Mnookin avoided directly addressing allegations of support for critical race theory and vaccine mandates, but defended academic freedom.
“I do think that academic freedom is a key principle for all universities. That needs to mean the freedom to pursue scholarship and research in all sorts of different ways, including along these lines,” Mnookin says,
Another topic of today’s press conference was race and belonging on campus. In the campus climate survey taken last year, students of color reported not feeling as positive about UW-Madison as white students. Additionally, the Daily Cardinal reported earlier this year that Native American students only make up around 0.2% of the student population.
Mnookin says that she will work to create opportunities for all students on campus to feel welcome.
“That is something I think is very important. I look forward to meeting the leaders of the Ho Chunk Nation and talking about connections that already exist with UW Madison, and ways they might be strengthened. That’s something that’s been very important to me at UCLA,” Mnookin says.
“I think that it’s really important that everyone who is a part of UW Madison feels like they belong. We all are different, we all come from different backgrounds, identities and characteristics, often multiple identities and characteristics. This isn’t even just about race, or ethnicity, or political ideology, or gender, or sexual orientation, it’s not about any one of these things. It’s about a sense of belonging, and that this institution is a place that supports you and is a place where you feel included,” Mnookin says.
Mnookin will officially take over the role of UW Madison Chancellor on August 4. She will replace departing Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who is headed south to become Northwestern University’s next president. Her last day is May 31st.
Photo courtesy: UW Madison