A look inside the Blank administration

Part two

A look inside the Blank administration

by Grace Deng | Feb. 14, 2022

Photo of Rebecca Blank
Photo by Arushi Gupta / Courtesy of The Badger Herald

Editor’s Note: Former UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced on July 11, 2022 that she will no longer be Northwestern’s next president. Blank stepped down before her term began due to a cancer diagnosis.

Content warning: This story contains descriptions of violence, especially in the section titled “The question of accountability.”

Co-founder of UW-Madison’s BIPOC Coalition Tarah Stangler initially forgot to mention a university employee ran her over with a motorcycle in her first interview with NBN. It wasn’t until Matthew Mitnick, former chair of UW-Madison’s student council, brought up the incident four days later that Stangler remembered.

“There’s just stuff I’m remembering that I had completely forgotten about because of how much trauma [Blank] put us through,” Stangler said at the end of that first interview.

Members of the BIPOC Coalition, the graduate students union and the student council, including Stangler, said their experiences dealing with Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s administration at UW-Madison amid the pandemic were so traumatizing that they went to group therapy together to process the whole ordeal.

“Every time a new person would say something, [the therapists] would just sit there and have a moment of like, ‘Holy shit, this is what they’re doing to y’all? You’re entirely valid for the gaslighting they’re doing to you. What you’re experiencing is not okay,’” Stangler said.

“She’s like the puppet master.”

– Former chair of UW-Madison’s student council Matthew Mitnick

While many of them did not have more than one or two direct interactions with UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, they believe Blank’s leadership guided how the administration interacted with them.

“She set the tone, she created the culture,” Mitnick said.

Photo of Matthew Mitnick
Former chair of UW-Madison’s student council Matthew Mitnick. Photo by Grace Deng / North by Northwestern

To Mitnick, the administration was like a puppet show and Blank held the strings, though he believes it wasn’t always apparent to the larger public.

“She’s like the puppet master,” Mitnick said. “She still calls the shots. She still controls the movements.”

The question of accountability

Video from November 2020 obtained by NBN shows UW-Madison employee Rich Yaeger revving his motorcycle’s engine, telling Stangler he could rip her braids out of her head and then driving the motorcycle into a crowd of protesters. Yaeger ran Stangler's foot over and injured three protesters. According to Stangler, this incident occurred at a student counterprotest against rhetoric that the 2020 presidential election was “being stolen from Donald Trump.”

A bystander took this video of @UWMadison employee Rich Yaeger running into a group of protesters with his motorcycle.
He posted video from his own perspective on YouTube, where he uses racist language. These students want to see him fired, and the school condemn white supremacy pic.twitter.com/2xYiKrhiUj

— Amanda Quintana (@amandaqtv) November 9, 2020

Stangler sought an apology from then-Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration Laurent Heller, who oversaw the department where Yaeger was employed. Heller refused to speak to Stangler.

“What I really wanted was to talk to Laurent Heller and be like, ‘This was unacceptable. And I understand that he wasn’t your employee directly, but … you need to understand who you’re hiring and the harm that they can cause not only students but other faculty of color, and that’s not acceptable,’” Stangler said.

Heller no longer works at UW-Madison and has taken a similar administrative role at Johns Hopkins University.

About a week after the incident, UW-Madison’s student council, the Associated Students of Madison (ASM), called on Blank to fire Yaeger and condemn violence against students.

“Chancellor Blank, you stated that you would meet to discuss emergencies that fit into specific categories – correct me if I am wrong, but I believe multiple students being verbally harassed and assaulted by a UW employee constitutes some form of an emergency,” wrote Stangler in an email to Heller, Blank and many other administrators providing evidence of further harassment from Yaeger.

The university opened an investigation into the incident, but Blank never responded to Stangler or publicly commented on it.

“Chancellor Blank’s favorite thing is to say she is not directly involved in anything and she has people to do that for her,” Stangler said.

UW-Madison fired Yaeger a month after the incident for “workplace policy violations.”

The realities of shared governance

Under UW-Madison’s unique history of shared governance, student leaders have a direct line of communication with administrators – because it’s required by law. ASM is an official part of Wisconsin’s state government and controls $50 million in student fees each year.

In theory, shared governance also gives students the right to a say in nearly any decision made by the university. However, an internal ASM report found that legislation passed in 2015 called Act 55 weakened students’ rights. Instead of an actual vote in decisions, Act 55 merely gives ASM an advisory role.

“We are all at Becky’s beck and call by law. And so when she says, ‘I don’t have any say in this, you know, I’m not directly involved,’ that’s bullshit,” Stangler said. “At the end of the day, if that’s not what she likes, she can just veto it because Act 55 basically made her a dictator.”

Although Blank traditionally meets with ASM leadership once a semester, students say they were often passed off to other administrators when attempting to relay concerns to her.

“We were never able to meet with Blank,” said Sam Jorudd, a 2021 ASM representative. “We met with all the assistant deans and the assistant vice chancellors and all the bureaucracy of the university, basically, except for the top decision maker.”

When Mitnick was elected as ASM chair, he began bringing students from BIPOC Coalition to meetings with administrators. In response, he said administrators often threatened to end meetings.

In one audio recording shared by Mitnick, Heller is heard kicking a student out of a meeting.

The student is Juliana Bennett, a co-founder of BIPOC Coalition and now the Alder of District 8, where most UW-Madison students reside.

“We are all at Becky’s beck and call by law. And so when she says, ‘I don’t have any say in this, you know, I’m not directly involved,’ that’s bullshit.”

– BIPOC Coalition co-founder Tarah Stangler

In another one of Mitnick’s recordings, then-ASM member Amol Goyal said Heller told Goyal he was considering disbanding the Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Study Group – a shared governance committee led by Heller – because he can’t “enable a rotating cast of characters nor any further bullying from the current ASM chair.”

“So what you’re basically saying is, if I don’t pull out of these meetings, he’s just going to remove the damn committee?” Mitnick said in the recording.

“Yes,” Goyal replied.

In the recording, Mitnick told Goyal removing the committee would violate the state statute on shared governance, which Goyal disagreed with. Goyal did not respond to a request for comment.

Fighting for funds

In early 2021, ASM drafted legislation called the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund. The goal was to use $2 million stored in ASM-controlled reserve funds to help low-income students pay for housing. ASM planned to funnel the money through the Tenant Resource Center, an organization with which ASM has a long-standing partnership.

Executive Director of the Tenant Resource Center Robin Sereno wrote in an email that the center received thousands of calls from students asking about their rental rights and for rental assistance.

The legislation had support from then-District 8 Alder and UW-Madison student Max Prestigiacomo, Wisconsin State Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) and four other Madison city council representatives. In an ASM referendum answered by 7% of students, 90% of respondents – 2,634 students – said they wanted to see the COVID Relief Fund passed.

However, administrators refused to allow ASM to use reserve funds for the relief fund. Some student activists believed administrators wanted to use the funds for buildings on campus.

“If you won’t let us use this money for students now, what the hell do you have it set aside for in your brain?” Stangler said.

UW-Madison’s legal team claimed the legislation was not in compliance with SYS 820, a law that does not allow reserve funds to be used for direct monetary aid unless the recipient is a student leader. ASM created a new student leadership position called “Mask Ambassador,” which would allow any student who needed aid to be enrolled as a student leader as long as they wore a mask. UW-Madison’s legal team did not believe this met the definition of a student leader.

“You just can’t keep coming in and saying that you can’t support this,” said UW-Madison PhD student Jack Phillips in a recording of a COVID-19 Student Relief fund meeting with administrators. At the time, Phillips was an ASM Graduate School representative. “You say you share our goals. Our goals are to make February rent.”

Before Mitnick sent the legislation to administrators, he checked with UW-Madison policy analyst Anne Minnsen that the original legislation was in compliance with SYS 820.

“I would say that the references to SYS 820 are consistent with what the policy states,” Minnsen writes in an email Mitnick forwarded to NBN. “In general I would say it is really well written and included a lot of detail that I appreciated.”

Student leaders said administrators stonewalled, coming up with issue after issue to prevent the fund from being implemented.

“Every time we’d meet, they would give us a laundry list of issues they had with [the legislation]. We would come up with either different interpretations or solutions to those issues,” Jorudd said. “Then they genuinely would come up with just five more problems, another laundry list. It reached a point where every meeting we had was just following the same structure.”

An email Heller sent to several UW-Madison administrators suggests they were doing just that.

“If they somehow resolved these, I literally can think of five more problems,” Heller wrote in an email to several UW-Madison administrators about the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund.

Heller blocked the fund twice. In response, ASM passed a vote of no confidence in Heller.

Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs Lori Reesor said in an email to NBN that student leaders were not interested in working with the administration to enhance existing systems. Administrators repeatedly say in recordings that the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund will not happen under any circumstances.

“If you won’t let us use this money for students now, what the hell do you have it set aside for in your brain?”

– BIPOC Coalition co-founder Tarah Stangler

“What you’re doing over here is misleading students that this will happen, and I think that is disgraceful, to be honest with you,” said Dean of Students Christina Olstad to ASM leaders in one recording. “Because students are expecting this money to come, and it’s not going to come.”

In the recording, Jorudd tells Olstad that her comment calling ASM’s work disgraceful “hurt quite a lot.”

“I don’t think it’s false hope,” Jorudd said. “I think that we could do this.”

Following the money

In the first round of federal funding for COVID-19 relief, referred to as HEERF, UW-Madison spent the minimum federal requirement of 50%, amounting to $9.9 million, on students. Although the university received more funding in the second round of aid (HEERF II), it again chose to spend the federally mandated minimum amount on students – which did not go up despite the rise in aid – keeping $20 million for institutional purposes.

“We’re like, we know you’re giving us the bare minimum and you’re not telling us that,” said Megan Spielbauer Sandate, a co-founder of BIPOC Coalition.

In a recording Mitnick provided, Heller told him the university will spend more than the minimum amount.

“I can tell you with full certainty, that was a straight-up lie,” Mitnick said.

Student activists say they still do not know exactly where the other $18.7 million of HEERF II funding went. University leadership told Channel 3000, a local Madison outlet, that they planned to use it to cover part of $320 million in COVID-related expenses.

The Biden administration made it unclear whether HEERF funding could be given to DACA or undocumented students. While some universities gave these students HEERF funds anyway, UW-Madison chose not to. The COVID-19 Student Relief Fund that ASM proposed would have been open to DACA and undocumented students.

The university allowed DACA and undocumented students to apply for emergency funding, but Spielbauer Sandate said students’ emergency funding requests were often denied.

“They lied to our faces and told us people were getting financial assistance when we knew they weren’t,” said Spielbauer Sandate, who added students told her they were denied help despite being in medical debt.

The administration also initially refused to pay telecommuting international student employees for the same work that students residing in the United States were paid for by the university, citing issues such as international tax liabilities and cybersecurity.

“We were given two options: keep working without getting paid, or quit.”

– ASM member Brian Li

According to Mitnick, Jorudd and Brian Li, an ASM member and international student, then-Chief Human Resources Officer Mark Walters suggested international student employees were “not essential” to the operations of the university.

Li pointed out that international students pay the highest amount of tuition on campus. Li, who lived in China at the time, was not initially paid for his work with ASM from 2020 to 2021.

“We were given two options: keep working without getting paid, or quit,” said Li, who sometimes woke up at 4 or 5 a.m. for ASM meetings. “What would happen if we quit? These people supported us, they wanted us to represent them, and now the university wants us out? It gives me the feeling that these students who supported us, who voted for us … they are not essential [to the university] as well.”

After months of heavy pushback from students, the university reversed its policy and provided back pay. The administration said the decision was based on the “relatively small number” of international student employees.

Blank’s role

In one email obtained through a public record request made by Mitnick, Blank said handling the administration’s response to the COVID Relief Fund is up to Reesor and Charles Hoslet, who runs communications at UW-Madison. In another email, Blank asked Reesor what the ASM Reserve Board is. The ASM Reserve Board controls the reserve funds.

“As an economist, she certainly pays attention to the details and numbers, but her style of leadership is to hire great people and allow them to do their jobs,” Reesor wrote in an email to NBN.

Phillips and other ASM members disagreed.

“Her leadership style is ignoring every problem and letting everyone else handle it so she doesn’t have to get her hands dirty,” Phillips said.

Through a public record request, Mitnick obtained access to over 1600 pages of emails related to the COVID Relief Fund from the inboxes of UW-Madison’s vice chancellors. Emails sent by Blank rarely appear in the request, making it difficult to ascertain how closely Blank was connected to decisions made by other administrators. A Washington Post investigation of public records requests found that Blank attempted to avoid the public eye by keeping communication about school reopening private in fall 2021.

“I regret the language I used in my email exchange with other Big Ten chancellors, which appears as though I intended to use the Big Ten board portal to skirt my public records responsibilities,” said Blank in a statement to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Regardless of the amount of independence Blank gave her administrators, the chancellor was always in control, Mitnick said.

“There’d be so many meetings where we’d address what all these vice chancellors wanted, but then it would always be, ‘Oh, Chancellor Blank doesn’t support this,’ or, ‘Chancellor Blank is the person who has to OK this,’” Mitnick said. “But because she’s not reachable, because she says, ‘Oh yeah, this is up to the vice-chancellors,’ she puts a wall in between the issue and herself.”

Power play

Early in Mitnick’s tenure as ASM chair, he sent an email to Blank asking for an informal meeting to address hostile and intimidating behavior from administrators.

Mitnick said Olstad herself had suggested he send Blank the informal hostile and intimidating behavior complaint. He had many concerns. He felt Walters’ comment on international students was derogatory and inappropriate. He felt unsafe after administrators defended a tweet by UW-Madison’s Police Department (UWPD) that claimed Mitnick was spreading false information. He criticized UW-Madison Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief of Police Kristen Roman for making calls on her personal cell to ASM members prior to a no-confidence vote against UWPD.

The chancellor refused to meet with Mitnick, directing him to other administrators. Then she offered to put him in contact with the school’s mental health services.

Mitnick found himself questioning his sanity, wondering if he was the problem.

Before Blank’s email, Mitnick said administrators suggested he was not only struggling with his own mental health but was impacting other students’ mental health by creating a “toxic environment.”

“They’re very intentional with how they did that as a way to get in my head,” Mitnick said.

I wonder who “him” is 🤔 #MixedMessages pic.twitter.com/GdgIhrFQRt

— Matthew Mitnick (@matthewmitnick_) May 15, 2021

Olstad also sent him mental health resources after UWPD got in a spat with him over Twitter. The Badger Herald reported Olstad said she often sends mental health resources to students and faculty.

“If you are upset about something, they say, ‘Oh, it’s a mental health issue, you need to get help, there are resources on campus.’ When in reality, if they actually cared about your mental health, they’d just deal with the issue,” Mitnick said.

Mitnick’s friends think he was gaslit. Mitnick agrees. He called it a power play.

Stangler said she knows what it’s like to be dismissed and belittled as a person of color – and she said watching Mitnick, a white man, get similar treatment for uplifting BIPOC voices was “bizarre” and “appalling.”

“I’m a queer person of color. You got thick-ass skin. But having to watch someone have to build that skin themself from the ground-up out of nowhere reminded me just how bad it can get and how much they can make you feel like you’re the crazy one,” Stangler said. “The only reason they were doing this is because for the first time in my memory of UW, there was somebody that was really centering BIPOC voices specifically.”

Mitnick met with several administrators to voice his concerns. They told him that without a formal complaint, the only action moving forward would be for Chancellor Blank’s chief-of-staff to relay Mitnick’s concerns to the respective administrators. While Mitnick expressed optimism in his reply to the chief-of-staff, he privately felt like administrators essentially chose to do nothing.

“They used hostile, intimidating behavior in dealing with the hostile, intimidating behavior complaint,” Mitnick said.

When Mitnick met with actual mental health professionals at the university for ASM business, they decided to set up group therapy for him and his friends because they felt the group needed therapy to process how administrators treated them.

“I opened up and disclosed how Becky Blank suggested that I need mental health resources and that she would personally set up an appointment for me, and like the look on their faces was just pure horror,” Mitnick said.

“In reality, if they actually cared about your mental health, they’d just deal with the issue.”

– Former ASM chair Matthew Mitnick

The way Blank pushed Mitnick off to other administrators, the way she told him to seek mental health help as other administrators had, the way his concerns were not ever dealt with – Mitnick now believes that it was all a microcosm of Blank’s administration.

“All these other admin are punching bags,” Mitnick said. “As long as she’s not getting hit, she’s okay with it.”