Former UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank diagnosed with ‘aggressive’ form of cancer

MADISON, Wis. — Former UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced Monday that she’s no longer planning to take over as president of Northwestern University due to a recent cancer diagnosis.

In her statement shared on Northwestern’s website, Blank described her diagnosis as “aggressive,” adding that it will “require all my strength and resolve to fight, prohibiting me from being able to serve as your next president.”

The news came on what would have been Blank’s first day on campus as president-elect. She was previously scheduled to take over as president on Sept. 1.

“We all know that nothing in life is guaranteed,” Blank added. “This last week has probably brought the biggest changes that I have ever experienced in such a short period of time.”

In light of Blank’s announcement, Northwestern’s Board of Trustees has asked current university president Morton Schapiro to remain in his role until a new successor is named.

“I ask that all of us at Northwestern keep Becky in our thoughts,” Schapiro said in a statement. “I will be offering prayers for healing at Shabbat services until her full recovery. She and her family will always be a part of the Northwestern family. May we all stand with her, Hanns and Emily at this incredibly difficult time.”

Blank announced plans last fall to leave UW-Madison and take over as head of Northwestern after leading Wisconsin’s flagship university for more than eight years.

UW leaders were quick to share messages of support Monday morning. Interim Chancellor John Karl Scholz said in a statement that he and the rest of UW-Madison’s leadership team were “absolutely devastated” by the news.

“I know Becky will undertake her treatment with the same energy and focus with which she performed her duties as chancellor,” Scholz added.

In a series of tweets, UW System President Jay Rothman credited Blank for her role in the system’s success in recent years.

Earlier in her career, Blank was on the faculty of Northwestern’s Economics Department from 1989 to 1999. She also served as director of the Joint Center for Poverty Research and co-director of the Northwestern/University of Chicago Interdisciplinary Training Program in Poverty, Race and Underclass Issues. Her daughter is also a Northwestern graduate.

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Blank and her husband plan to return to the Madison area for her cancer treatment.

Read Blank’s full statement below:

Dear members of the Northwestern community,

This letter is among the most difficult and painful I have ever written. Today was supposed to be my first day on campus as President-elect, in anticipation of succeeding Morton Schapiro as your next president on Sept. 1. Last week, I learned that I have an aggressive form of cancer, which will require all my strength and resolve to fight, prohibiting me from being able to serve as your next president.

The job of president requires multiple events, long days, travel and constant energy, especially in the first year. I have always been able to deliver this in previous jobs, but my doctors advise me that the treatments I am starting will make it almost impossible to do the job you need in a new president. I do not have the words to express to you how disappointed and sad I am to be telling you this. I was excited to be joining you at Northwestern, a world-class institution that is near and dear to my heart.

As heartbreaking as this is for me, I take solace in knowing Northwestern is in great hands. Although I have not been on campus full-time, I have had the opportunity to talk with many campus leaders over the past eight months. It is clear that NU has tremendous leadership, outstanding faculty and staff, and a wonderful group of students.

We all know that nothing in life is guaranteed. This last week has probably brought the biggest changes that I have ever experienced in such a short period of time. I am grieving the lost opportunities to work with all of you across campus to make Northwestern even better in the years ahead. But I remain just as excited for you and for the institution as I was when I accepted Northwestern’s invitation to be your next president. I will continue to cheer you every step of the way as you continue forward.

I wish you all the best. I am grateful for the welcome you have given me over these past months.