In an investiture ceremony held on April 14, 2023, Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin was formally installed as the 30th leader of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In a speech titled, “The Multiplier Effect,” she addressed the UW–Madison campus community, members of the international academic community, and representatives from the nation and elected officials. Mnookin spoke to the strength and promise of the Wisconsin Idea and UW’s core institutional priorities of both free speech and belonging.
Chancellor Mnookin: Governor Evers, Regent President Walsh, Members of the Board of Regents, President Rothman, my fellow chancellors and presidents, members of the faculty, staff and students, including shared governance leaders, distinguished guests and delegates, family, friends and colleagues:
Let me begin with a story.
A revolutionary discovery
On a hot July day in 1964, a young researcher named Tom Brock, who would soon become a UW–Madison professor, took a road trip out west. He decided to stop at Yellowstone National Park, a place he’d never been.
Most of us entering Yellowstone might marvel at Old Faithful, the mountains, the magnificent waterfalls or the extraordinary wildlife. But not Tom Brock. As a microbiologist, he was gobsmacked by the pink, yellow, and blue-green slime that spread across the runoff from the hot springs.
He asked around, and people shrugged. No one seemed to know much about it.
His curiosity was piqued, and he returned to Yellowstone to do fieldwork and learn more. And he pulled from those hot springs a strain of bacteria no one had ever seen, which changed our understanding of the conditions in which life is possible. He named it Thermus aquaticus.
It offered tantalizing clues about the possibility of life on other planets, but its immediate impact was here on earth. This bacterium could reproduce itself in the hot springs at very high heat, and its heat resistant enzyme turned out to be just the thing for powering a molecular copy machine that can amplify a few strands of DNA into amounts large enough to measure.
The impact of Brock’s discovery is dazzling. It paved the way for the invention of polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a wildly important technique that has transformed scientific fields from biotechnology to forensics. This process requires repeated cycles of extreme heat and an enzyme tough enough to survive those cycles. In my own area of scholarship, expert and scientific evidence, the rise of PCR testing turned DNA testing into a wildly useful investigatory technique both for identifying wrongdoers and bringing wrongful convictions to light.
And in 2020, Thermus aquaticus drove a major breakthrough that everyone in this room has benefitted from: the PCR test for COVID-19.
When an interviewer asked Tom about his monumental discovery, he said simply, “I 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!
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.
As I look around this beautiful symphony hall, I see so many people who have nourished this excellence over many years. And I see so many people who have welcomed me warmly over these last eight months, alongside people from whom I have learned so very much over many years.
I am tremendously grateful and humbled to have this opportunity to lead this incredible university in this beautiful place, once called Tejope, as you heard Professor McInnes say. Thank you for your trust in me. And I am also acutely aware that I stand on the shoulders of so very, very many others.
Many thanks to my predecessor chancellors, who made UW–Madison stronger. We — and I — have benefitted from their leadership and wisdom. I also want to recognize and thank my immediate predecessor, the extraordinary Rebecca Blank, who did so much for the university and was enormously generous with me during my first six months here, even as her health was failing.
Let us please take a moment and share a round of applause for the leadership of all our former chancellors, including those who are with us today — chancellors Donna Shalala, David Ward, John Wiley, Biddy Martin — and also Becky Blank.
I thank Regent President Karen Walsh and the Board of Regents for your leadership and for trusting me with this extraordinary opportunity.
Thank you to President Jay Rothman for your confidence in me and your tremendous partnership in what is, for both of us, a first year in a new role.
To the other presidents and chancellor colleagues in the room, both from my sister UW institutions and from elsewhere, the chance to work with you and learn from you is a gift that I treasure.
To Governor Evers, thank you for prioritizing higher education and recognizing its critical importance to our state.
To the many community leaders and elected officials in the room, thank you for understanding the fundamental importance of UW–Madison to our great state and for the warm welcome, the advice and for encouraging us to do more and to be better.
Thank you as well to the faculty and staff who make this expansive, broad-ranging campus extraordinary, and who have helped me over the past eight months to better understand the precious parts of our DNA that must be preserved, as well as the places where we have opportunities to do something differently and better.
I especially want to thank my chief of staff, Jennifer Noyes, who began working with me about a month before I officially started and who has worked indefatigably and with great wisdom ever since.
And Provost Karl Scholz for his work with me this year and his many years of service. Karl, I am going to be cheering you on as you go from being a Badger to a Duck.
And thank you to the vice chancellors, deans, and other leaders of this university for combining a commitment to excellence with a deep service ethos.
A special thank you to the small but mighty team who put together the events of investiture week, most especially Carrie Olson and Deb Curry as well as everyone who worked with them. And huge appreciation, more generally, to the dedicated and talented staff of UW–Madison, whose efforts and persistence and commitment fuel our mission.
I am also grateful for so many of our alumni and friends who are not just loyal but fiercely loyal to this institution and whose generosity gives us a margin of excellence.
And thank you to our students — nearly 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom are the first generation in their family to go to college, who come to us from every county in Wisconsin, every state in U.S., and more than 120 countries around the world — and who inspire me with their passion and curiosity.
I am also so deeply appreciative of the many friends, family and colleagues who are in the room today, many of whom have travelled from so far away to be here with us.
To my UCLA colleagues, from deans to faculty to administrative leaders and alums who came to Madison today even though it’s the very busiest time of the academic year — it means the world to me you made the journey!
Welcome to the Big Ten and Game On!
And to so many others have travelled to be here, from a dear high school friend to my college roommates to intellectual mentors to law school classmates to law faculty and deans from elsewhere — thank you not only for being here, but for being there in so many ways for so many years.
To all of today’s speakers and performers, thank you. And Mike Schill, special thanks for your too-generous words today and for your friendship and your mentorship. Working as your vice dean at UCLA set me on the path that brought me here today. How lucky I am that you are now just a couple hours down the road.
And family. Thank you does not begin to convey how much you mean to me. My parents, Dale and Bob Mnookin, thank you for instilling in me the belief that love and intellectual capital are the two most important currencies. To my younger but taller sister, Allison Mnookin, thank you for knowing when to give advice and knowing when to listen, and thank you so much to the numerous members of my extended family here today as well.
And my children, Sophia and Isaac Dienstag, watching you blossom into amazing young adults has been a blessing beyond belief. And Joshua Dienstag, my wonderful husband, thank you for your tremendous blend of brilliance and support. You are both a deep thinker and a great cook. I am beyond lucky to have you as my partner on this academic leadership journey and in my life.
The multiplier effect
That was a lot of thank-yous and at the same time, far too few.
And let me be clear. I feel enormously grateful to be here, but this day and this celebration, are really not about me. They’re about us, and a university grown from a deep-rooted commitment to making a genuine and positive difference across Wisconsin, our country, and the globe.
What the University of Wisconsin–Madison is, and what it needs to be, for the sake of our students, our state, and our society — those are the subjects we must address.
So let me return for just a moment to our friend Tom Brock.
My own training in the social study of science has always led me to be curious about the similarities and analogies between the processes of science and the larger patterns of our social world. So as I read about Tom Brock and his research, I couldn’t help but note the parallels between the way in which Taq polymerase acts on DNA and the way in which our guiding principle of service to humankind, which we call the Wisconsin Idea, acts on our university.
Both amplify and accelerate; both make something bigger and stronger than it was before. Both have a kind of multiplier effect — one microscopic, the other as big as the world.
The Wisconsin Idea 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.
Invention and amplification
There is a story many of you know well. Harry Steenbock was a UW professor who invented a process for adding Vitamin D to milk, which virtually eliminated the common childhood disease called rickets.
Steenbock had little desire for personal wealth, but a deep desire to make sure his invention could help people. Which meant keeping it out of the hands of charlatans peddling phony claims and setting prices that would put enriched milk out of reach for most families.
Indeed, before the patents were acquired, ads for “bottled sunshine” at exorbitant prices began popping up.
But Steenbock faced enormous pushback from people who were offended by the idea that a professor here at UW should patent an invention and thereby spoil the beneficence of pure academic research with the potential for moneymaking or profit.
He needed a way to guarantee that the money flowing in would be invested back into the university, and so WARF, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the first of its kind in the country, was born.
WARF was both controversial and groundbreaking, and 98 years after its founding, it has provided more than $4.1 billion to seed research excellence and fuel the kind of discovery and innovation that changes lives.
Making this campus No. 7 in the world for U.S. patents and helping create a hugely powerful economic engine with an impact of more than $31 billion a year on this great state.
That is the multiplier effect of the Wisconsin Idea.
Now, before I had the good fortune of becoming chancellor, I already knew about the Wisconsin Idea. Given that I have spent my career at great public research universities committed in their own ways to the public good, I recognized that the Wisconsin Idea named something so powerful about what a first-rate public university should be, that the idea of the Wisconsin Idea itself traveled far beyond the boundaries of this state.
I also knew about it in a more personal way. As many of you have heard me say, in December 2020, in the depths of the pandemic, the University of Wisconsin Solution made it possible for me to donate my kidney in Los Angeles and have it safely preserved as it traveled on a United Airlines red-eye to Boston and to my father, who was suffering from late stage kidney disease. I’m so grateful that he is now healthy enough to be here today and in fact, to have led today’s academic procession.
Facing the future
The greatness of our university and of our state are indisputably linked. The strength of one rises on the strength of the other. Back in 1904, at a jubilee celebration of UW’s first graduates, Governor Robert LaFollette — Fightin’ Bob — captured the dimensions of our strength while exhorting us to do even more: “It is not enough that this university shall zealously advance learning or that it shall become a great storehouse of knowledge… or that it shall maintain the highest standards of scholarship and develop every… talent. All these are vitally essential, but the state demands more. The state,” he said,” asks that you give back….”
We have, I think it is fair to say, made good on that promise.
But, what about tomorrow? How can we make sure that our 175-year-old institution will shine even more brightly on its 200th birthday? That our impact will be not just multiplied but strengthened exponentially?
What obstacles must we remove, and what seeds we must plant, to grow a university that accomplishes these goals and also stays open to the mysteries and surprises that will inevitably come along and shuffle the deck — so we can see and embrace both the magnificent views and the transformative yellow slime?
How we respond to these questions will determine our ability to accelerate our impact and assure our intellectual leadership as one of the world’s greatest universities.
The needs are substantial. We face ongoing threats to public health. Global political instability, racial justice issues, pervasive mental health challenges, growing income inequality, technological advances like AI that raise complicated ethical and moral questions, the perils of social media and disinformation, and of course, climate change.
Not to mention the very substantial political polarization in this country that makes progress on any of these challenging issues a good deal harder still, as all too often it seems like people distrust each other before they even stop to listen to each other.
And speaking of distrust, we have another wrinkle. As Mike Schill noted, in a nation that long viewed public universities as a public good and college degrees as a clear positive, we now see a significant share of people not only turning away from these ideals but questioning some of the bedrock values on which we’ve built this system of higher education that is the envy of the world.
And let me say: Many of the questions people are asking are legitimate! Does college cost too much? Are we adequately preparing students for the workforce and the challenges that they will face? Even if we think that the criticisms are exaggerated or misplaced, we need to recognize them and answer them better than we have in the past.
We need to make sure we are affordable, especially for Wisconsin families.
We need to make sure we are a place where all students can flourish, no matter their backgrounds, their identities, or their political perspectives.
We need to make sure — in the words of Bob LaFollette — that we are not just a “great storehouse of knowledge,” but that we impart that knowledge in a way that engages our students deeply in their learning, and that the degrees we confer reflect not only the successful completion of coursework but a real ability to add something of value to the world.
And we need to strengthen and affirm our efforts to acknowledge that the land under our feet is the ancestral homeland of the Ho-Chunk people and to build strong relationships with the Native Nations who call Wisconsin home.
We do not all have to have precisely the same answers about how to create the conditions that will best allow us to address the many issues our world is facing. Indeed, we shouldn’t. But we can, I think, find common ground in what one Illinois politician running for president back in 1952 said in a campaign speech here in Madison that still rings true: “The Wisconsin tradition [means]… a faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society.”
Intelligence and reason are absolutely necessary ingredients, but insufficient. They are like pieces of a puzzle — parts of a whole.
The other pieces come in a variety of shapes and colors:
- Courage to cross boundaries and work in ways that are radically interdisciplinary;
- Commitment to being a place where ideas are nurtured and explored; and
- A community where all people have a strong enough sense of belonging to engage successfully across differences.
This is a tall order, but if we can manage to put these pieces together, we will multiply our ability to address momentous challenges, here and around the world.
And I have great confidence that we can and will succeed. Because I have seen the strength of our commitment to impact, to excellence, and to collaboration.
Since I arrived, we’ve celebrated an important new financial aid program, Bucky’s Pell Pathway, to help ensure that all of our talented students — regardless of their family’s income — can afford not only to come here but to have a full Wisconsin Experience.
We’ve brought in exciting new coaches in football and hockey, and our women’s hockey team won its seventh national title to become the winningest team in history, while we here at UW–Madison have shown more fan support for women’s sports than any other school in this country.
And we’ve launched a permanent Center for Campus History, the Rebecca M. Blank Center, born out of the important work of the Public History Project to make looking backward, thoughtfully and unflinchingly, part of how we move forward.
Celebrating our strengths
And starting today, let’s celebrate our UW–Madison impact a little more loudly than has sometimes been our wont.
Let’s celebrate the university where engineers work with fashion designers, where economists work with scientists creating new biofuels from poplar trees, and where practicing artists like the incredible Lynda Barry — one of our several MacArthur Genius Award winners — inspire students in the STEM fields to solve problems by making art, a wonderful approach to igniting curiosity.
Let’s celebrate the university that’s engineering ordinary T-cells to be like heat-seeking missiles that find and destroy cancer cells.
Let’s celebrate the university where industry, the government, and researchers come together so that the Center for Dairy Research can serve as the “doctor on call” to Wisconsin’s impressive dairy industry.
Let’s celebrate the university that created the Discussion Project that has trained hundreds of teachers in fields from chemistry to political science to create more engaging classroom discussions while shedding new light on how high-quality classroom discussions impact our students’ learning and sense of belonging.
Let’s celebrate that we are graduating more undergraduate students than ever, with more than 60 percent of them graduating with zero debt, with an average time to graduation of just 3.8 years, and that applications are at all a time high.
Let’s celebrate all of this and more — but let’s never be self-satisfied.
The needs are great, and we must commit to growing our ambitions in the years ahead. To do still more to multiply and amplify our commitments to education, to research, and to service. To meet our challenges head-on, hand-in-hand with strong and motivated partners. Not for ourselves, but for the people we serve.
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.
It will mean amplifying the impressive $1.3 billion of funded research we do each year.
It will mean building deeper partnerships both 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.
And it will mean redoubling our efforts to create a campus where every student — whether first in their family to go to college or a fourth-generation Badger, whatever their race, sexual orientation or gender identity, whatever their political viewpoint or religion, whether they hail from a big city or a small rural community — knows that they belong and that they are part of the kaleidoscopic fabric that makes us great.
Let us also work to become a national model for how universities can engage across difference. Because this is a problem we cannot ignore.
It’s not a Wisconsin problem, or even a university problem. It’s a problem for our nation and our democracy.
And we’ve seen far too many examples of people on both the right and the left wanting to silence or censor speech and ideas they disagree with.
Here at UW–Madison, we need to remain resolutely committed to that “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone truth can be found.”
At the same time, we need to acknowledge that not all of our students have the same sense of full belonging, or equally feel that this special place, our university, is, so to speak, for them. And not everyone at UW–Madison feels consistently comfortable sharing their views, whether in the classroom or in the hallways.
Our university must be a place that not only welcomes all points of view and allows for free discussion of ideas but also, simultaneously, helps students develop a strong sense of belonging. So they can flourish and so that they can learn to talk across difference without feeling untethered or unmoored.
I say to you: Free speech and belonging must both be core institutional priorities. They must both be north stars that guide our way. To be sure, they are sometimes in tension with one another. But both must be non-negotiable.
It is urgent that we help build pathways back to civil dialogue across difference. And I firmly believe that this university can be a national leader in supporting both free speech and belonging, by creating the place that the author, activist, and UW alum bell hooks envisioned when she said:
I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility.
Let us, here at UW–Madison, lead the way. Let our future story be dazzling and bright. Let us connect, with curiosity and enthusiasm, across our differences and across our disciplines. Let us grow our partnerships and collaborations to do more and greater things together than we could ever do alone.
What I am calling for will make us stronger in the years ahead, but it will not be easy. Some might even call it impossible. But that cannot and will not deter us.
The renowned historian Bill Cronon retired from UW almost exactly one year ago. I read and admired his books back when I was a graduate student. In his final lecture here, he said this:
There are many things we did together, that were impossible.
They couldn’t be done!
But we didn’t know they couldn’t be done.
So we figured out a way to do them. And that’s the way the world works.
That’s my job as your chancellor. To figure out how to do impossible things. And it is your job too.
Let us bring the same passion and curiosity to the tasks before us that Tom Brock brought to uncovering life in the unlikeliest of places.
Fulfilling our common purpose to do the impossible together for the sake of our state, our country, our students, our people, and our future is a solemn mission, and it is also a most joyful opportunity.
Thank you so much, and On, Wisconsin.