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New UW-Madison leader deflects questions about GOP critics

FILE - This photo provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows Jennifer L. Mnookin, dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, on May 15, 2022 in Los Angeles. A group of Wisconsin professors defended Mnookin, UW-Madison's new chancellor, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, from GOP critics who have accused her of being unabashedly liberal. (Max S. Gerber/University of Wisconsin-Madison via AP File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — New University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin on Tuesday deflected questions during her first news conference about GOP critics who have painted her as an unabashed liberal and threatened to restrict funding if regents stand by the decision to hire her.

Asked repeatedly for her reaction to the Republican attacks, Mnookin would say only that she’s looking forward to moving to Madison and is willing to talk with anyone.

“I’m a connector,” she said during the news conference via Zoom. “I’m willing to sit in the room and listen.”

UW Regents Vice President Karen Walsh defended the decision to hire Mnookin, saying at the news conference that the regents look for leadership qualities and don’t have what she called a “political litmus test.” She also minimized Republican threats to constrict funding for the system in Mnookin stays in the job.

“It’s a free country and people can say what they want,” Walsh said. “Honestly, I don’t take those comments very seriously. I don’t think (reducing funding is) realistic. I would like these folks to meet Chancellor Mnookin before they threaten our funding. I don’t think they really intend to do that. … There is much common ground. Unfortunately, it’s a little sexier to talk about where we differ.”

The regents announced Monday that they had voted unanimously to hire Mnookin over four other finalists to succeed outgoing Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who is leaving at the end of the month to become the president of Northwestern University.

Mnookin currently serves as dean of UCLA’s law school. She’ll make $750,000 annually as UW-Madison chancellor, about $132,000 more than Blank earned.

Within hours of the announcement, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos issued a statement blasting the hire. He painted Mnookin as a liberal, pointing to tweets in which she voiced support for COVID-19 vaccine mandates on California campuses and critical race theory, which purports that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions. Vos also noted that Mnookin has donated to Democratic candidates and causes.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch issued a statement calling Mnookin “a woke radical” and said the hiring decision will encourage Wisconsin parents to send their kids to out-of-state universities so they can get “an honest education.”

Steve Nass, Republican vice-chairman of the state Senate’s universities committee and a vocal UW critic, issued a statement saying if the regents believe Mnookin is the best choice then GOP lawmakers should refuse to increase state aid for the entire UW System and freeze tuition rates, choking off two of the system’s key revenue streams.

UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch pointed out that the regents unanimously approved Mnookin’s hire, including some regents appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Professors tweeted a statement saying the criticism of Mnookin is grounded in “corrosive right-wing conspiracy theories” and calling Republican threats to starve the UW System of funding if regents don’t reconsider inappropriate and embarrassing.

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