Regents pick UCLA law school dean to lead UW-Madison

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The dean of UCLA’s law school has been chosen as the next head of the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison, the university system’s regents announced Monday.

Jennifer Mnookin was picked to succeed outgoing Chancellor Rebecca Blank, the regents said. Mnookin holds a law degree from Yale and has served as dean of the School of Law at UCLA since 2015. She also has served as a law professor at the University of Virginia.

Mnookin beat out four other finalists for the job, including UW-Madison Provost John Scholz; University of Pittsburgh provost and philosophy professor Ann Cudd; Marie Lynn Miranda, a Notre Dame statistics professor; and Daniel Reed, a University of Utah computer professor and former provost.

In the university’s announcement of the hire, Mnookin said she feels lawyers are uniquely positioned to be leaders.

“Lawyers have to listen carefully,” she said. “They have to think strategically. They are, fundamentally, trained as problem solvers and sometimes have to persuade people that don’t necessarily see the world the way they do. They also have to be willing to engage across difference and think seriously about alternative points of view. I do think those are qualities that I will bring to this role as chancellor.”

Mnookin will start her job at UW-Madison on Aug. 4. She will make $750,000 annually, UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch said.

Mnookin’s husband, Joshua Foa Dienstang, serves as a political science and law professor at UCLA. He will accompany his wife to Madison and plans to join the UW-Madison faculty.

Pitsch referred questions about Dienstang’s specific role and salary and whether Mnookin’s acceptance of the chancellor position was contingent on UW hiring her husband to UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas. Lucas said he didn’t have any details on her husband’s hiring.

Robin Vos, the state Assembly’s top Republican, issued a statement painting Mnookin as liberal and pointing to tweets of hers that he says show she supports COVID-19 vaccine mandates and critical race theory, which centers on the idea that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions. Vos and other Republican lawmakers have been pushing UW for years to punish students who disrupt conservative speakers’ presentations. Vos called her hire a “blatant partisan selection."

“This is a step backwards,” Vos wrote.

In one of the tweets Vos cited, Mnookin said she supported a University of California order last summer that required students, faculty and other employees to be fully vaccinated before coming to campus that fall.

In another tweet he cited, she wrote that she was proud of the UCLA law school’s critical race studies program. The program’s website states that it is “dedicated to critical race theory in legal scholarship and related disciplines.”

Vos also noted that she has donated to Democratic candidates and causes. A link to Federal Election Commission records that Vos included in his statement shows that Mnookin last year donated to then-U.S. Senate candidate Eric Orts of Pennsylvania, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue.

“Given her obvious viewpoints and political donations, Dr. Mnookin needs to prove she supports free speech on campus and not politically correct ideologies,” Vos said.

In a statement through the university, Mnookin responded that she looks forward to meeting Vos this summer and that she plans to work with all members of the Legislature, regardless of party.

Republican Steve Nass, vice-chairman of the state Senate’s universities committee and a vocal UW critic, said in a statement that if the regents think Mnookin is the best choice, GOP lawmakers should squeeze the UW System financially by refusing to increase state aid and freezing tuition rates.

Pitsch said in an email that Mnookin received a unanimous vote from the regents, including those appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

“The UW Board of Regents selection process for chancellors and the President is rigorous and well-considered, and has resulted in a talented, diverse group of leaders at universities across Wisconsin, including Chancellor-designate Mnookin,” Pitsch said. “We look forward to her arrival at UW-Madison.”

Blank made $618,278 annually. She is set to step down as chancellor on May 31 to take over as president at Northwestern Universit y. The regents said Monday that Scholz will serve as chancellor before Mnookin arrives in August.