Jennifer L. Mnookin, the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s 30th chancellor, was the featured guest at a recent fireside chat with Wisconsin School of Business faculty and staff hosted by Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, WSB’s Albert O. Nicholas Dean. The discussion touched on a range of topics including leadership, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and student success.
But the conversation wasn’t all business: Sambamurthy and the audience found time to put Mnookin’s Wisconsin and UW–Madison knowledge to the test with a rigorous onboarding that she passed with flying colors—including red. Not only was the chancellor wearing noteworthy amounts of red (her hair should count too, she felt), but she also pronounced challenging Wisconsin town names, clarified the pronunciation of her own, and shared which Madison traditions she has already enjoyed.
Prior to joining UW–Madison, Mnookin served as dean of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law, where she had been a faculty member since 2005. Mnookin received her AB from Harvard University, her JD from Yale Law School, and a PhD in history and social study of science and technology from MIT.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
On the meaning of leadership
“For me, leadership is about bringing your vision and ideas in connection with your situation and institution to try to help make possible what wouldn’t have been possible without you. Sometimes you lead from the front of the room, and sometimes you lead from the back of the room, and you have to be able to do both depending on the circumstances. Leadership is collaborative.”
On her vision and plans
“Within my first couple days, people began to say to me, ‘What’s your five-month plan? What’s your vision?’ And I would say to them, ‘Not only do I not have one yet, but you shouldn’t want me to. You should want me to invest in understanding this place, its strengths and its needs in a more meaningful way, before I try to bring my values and opportunities and perspectives to what we’re doing here together.’
I’m collaborative and I like engagement. People should own their domains and have the freedom to innovate with guardrails. I believe we do best when we work in a very community-focused way. Those are some of the things I bring to bear on how I think about what’s possible. Our excellence really matters, and we should be aiming to be as strong as we can. We are a world-class institution, and we should embrace that.”
On the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion
“This is a really important topic for our communities, and also our country. Part of it is about creating opportunities for communities that have traditionally not had as many opportunities over the course of long periods of time. We have not always had a fair playing field, and recognizing that as something that is all of ours to acknowledge and work to correct is an important starting point.
Another thing is that there’s a huge amount of research showing that diversity helps us make better decisions. Diversity is not just the right thing to care about; it’s also an instrumentally valuable thing to care about if you want to do as well as you can for your organization. So, I think it’s both a values proposition and a set of more instrumental goals that we have to embrace.
It’s also important to think about belonging, to think about creating spaces that make everybody feel that they can and do belong—and recognizing that belonging is important to flourishing. I know [the Wisconsin School of Business] just created a multicultural center. We need to have locations where people feel like they can let their metaphoric hair down and be their whole selves without having to wear any armor, but we also need to value tremendously the ability to engage across and to engage with difference, and to do that even when it’s sometimes hard and not always comfortable.”
On preparing undergraduates for success
“What we want is fundamentally to create lifelong learners, where our students have developed a set of talents and skills that they can put to work, but where they also know that when they need to pivot or transition, they have the foundational abilities and belief in themselves to know that it will be possible.
I’m a big believer that your major is not your destiny. That’s true for our business school students just as much as it’s true for everybody else. I think that the face-to-face interaction of a residential college experience is a substantial part of what makes superb learning in the classroom. But it’s also about the cocurricular experiences. One of the things I’ve been excited about here is how rich those are for our students, and how we as an institution recognize the value of both curricular and cocurricular learning. Sometimes those can fit together in very explicit ways; other times they can diverge. But they both are part of what shapes what it means to be a Badger, what it means to be a Wisconsin graduate.”