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Spheres of influence: 2015 most influential people in Greater Madison

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Rebecca Blank: Higher-Education Crusader

When Gov. Scott Walker proposed $300 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, his most outspoken critic was UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank. It’s not just that she was outspoken, it was the impact of her advocacy — particularly the competitive disadvantages created by associated faculty changes — that helped turn public opinion against the governor’s plan.

Even though state lawmakers — no doubt hearing from concerned constituents — watered down the governor’s proposed cuts, disappointing revenue projections meant the legislature could not restore everything. So while 84% of UW–Madison’s projected job cuts would come from attrition (i.e., open jobs that will remain unfilled), 70 existing jobs will be lost in various academic departments.

Blank, however, had made her point about the faculty retention impacts of such a draconian measure at a university that brings in $1 billion annually in federal research grants, thanks largely to the grant-winning ability of its faculty. Meanwhile, Walker, a likely presidential candidate, not only saw his economic development chops take a hit, his standing in public opinion polls eroded to the point where he would be beaten by Hillary Clinton in his home state.

Stephen & Laurel Brown: Faith-Based Philanthropists

Stephen and Laurel Brown are best known for apartment management and architectural design, respectively, but after starting their own charitable foundation, their true legacy is starting to emerge. Stephen (Steve Brown Apartments) and Laurel (Brownhouse Designs) have established a foundation to serve faith-based ministries. The beneficiaries are likely to be people and families in need, the arts, and various community-building initiatives such as Porchlight Inc., the Dane County Humane Society, and American Players Theatre.

Directing a project called Upper | House, located on the second floor of University Square in the heart of the UW–Madison campus, the values-based Stephen and Laurel Brown Foundation will partner with Blackhawk Church on a collegiate ministry, establish a Center for Christian Studies, and continue to own and manage Dottie’s Ranch, a cabin retreat located in a 1,000-acre nature preserve 10 miles south of Madison.

The main initiative, however, is Upper | House, which is too multifaceted to fit one niche. Located in a former food court space, it now helps to nourish people in other ways, and it will be the scene of everything from church retreats to concerts to spiritual exploration.

Angela Byars-Winston: Diversity Mentor

At the moment, UW–Madison professor Angela Byars-Winston is intensely focused on mentor training, but she hasn’t taken her eyes off another passion — diversity. Even though a mounting collection of research demonstrates the organizational and problem-solving value of diverse workforces, old assumptions and low expectations have prevented the so-called STEM disciplines from attracting more women and minorities.

Her research into science, technology, engineering, and math mentoring will play a role in developing the next generation of scholars, and hopefully bring much-needed diversity to the STEM disciplines. With rare exceptions such as the biological life sciences, these fields are dominated by white males — white males who are approaching retirement — and should be replenished with a diverse workforce.

STEM diversity has become a high priority of the federal government, and mentoring is viewed as a key element. Byars-Winston and two colleagues were awarded a four-year, $1.4 million National Institutes of Health grant to study how mentors and the people they mentor define diversity awareness and its importance to the mentoring relationship. By improving the effectiveness of mentoring for minority and female students and employees, the belief is that STEM disciplines such as physics and engineering can finally make diverse progress.


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