Incoming UW-Madison chancellor responds to GOP criticism

MADISON, Wis. — Jennifer Mnookin, chosen this week to replace Rebecca Blank as UW-Madison’s chancellor, shook off criticism from Republicans in the state Legislature during her first media availability Tuesday.

“I’m really looking forward to talking to everyone, to meeting with everybody who’s whose game to talk to me, and to work with everybody to find common ground,” Mnookin said.

Her comments came after sharp criticism from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who asked the UW Board of Regents to reconsider selecting Mnookin to lead the system’s largest campus.

Board of Regents Vice President Karen Walsh said however, the criticisms from Vos and other Republicans were non starters.

“Honestly, I don’t take those comments very seriously,” Walsh said during the availability. “We don’t have the luxury of having ‘left side of the aisle’ and ‘right side of the aisle,’ we have one aisle that everybody travels down — we must work together.”

Vos fired back Tuesday, saying that stance was the “same arrogant and dismissive attitude that’s the problem on issues like campus free speech.”

Republicans criticized the board’s choice of Mnookin for her connection to idea of critical race theory — citing a panel discussion on the topic she moderated while dean of the UCLA law school.

Critical race theory is a term used to describe analysis of racial disparities, and a practice that emerged in legal studies.

“We need to create spaces for ideas of all different kinds to be part of the dialogue within universities,” Mnookin said. “I think those ideas do include critical race theory and lots of other ideas too. Part of how we move forward is through those conversations and dialogues.”

Vos had earlier criticized her history of donating to Democrats, saying that, “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.”

“We don’t have a political litmus test,” Walsh said. “We hired the state’s longest serving GOP governor to run this system for two years and the [regents] 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.”

“We hire for intelligence, innovation and leadership,” she added.

In a statement from the Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the group “condemn[ed] these statements of opposition in the strongest possible terms.”

“We will not engage with the substance of the criticisms leveled at Mnookin, which are grounded in corrosive right-wing conspiracy theories,” the group wrote.

In a statement, chair of the Senate Universities and Technical Colleges Committee Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said the Legislature should consider withholding funding for the university if Mnookin remains at the helm.

“These threats are beyond the pale. They constitute unacceptable political interference in the administration of the UW System,” the group wrote.

Blank will leave office May 31 to become president of Northwestern University. Mnookin will start Aug. 4.