Cancer diagnosis forces Blank to step down before taking Northwestern presidency

The former University of Wisconsin chancellor, who is planning to begin treatments soon, expressed disappointment and sadness in a letter to the NU community.
By: | July 12, 2022
Photo courtesy of Northwestern University

Rebecca Blank, who was in line to take over as president-elect of Northwestern University and become the first woman to lead in that position in 170 years, announced she will not be able to fill that role because of an aggressive form of cancer.

In a letter to staff, students, faculty and alumni, the 66-year-old Blank said she was diagnosed last week and that battling the disease “will require all my strength and resolve to fight, prohibiting me from being able to serve as your next president.” She is beginning treatments soon in Wisconsin that will prevent her from fulfilling the many duties of that role, including heavy travel and meetings.

“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,” Blank wrote to the Northwestern community. “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.”

Blank had been chosen by Northwestern’s Board of Trustees to replace current president Morton Schapiro, who was set to leave office in late August. He has been asked to remain on during the transition period and as the university begins another search for a new leader.

“I ask that all of us at Northwestern keep Becky in our thoughts,” Schapiro said. “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.”

An ‘unparalleled’ leader

Blank had been named president in October of 2021 after eight years as chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Among her many accomplishments were helping raise a record $4 billion during a capital campaign as well as boosting enrollment and providing more opportunities for lower-income students. She also increased diversity at the university and helped sponsored research grow by more than $1 billion.

When Northwestern’s Board made the decision to replace Schapiro with Blank, it knew her strengths well. She was the first tenured female economics professor member (1989 to 1999) and was director of its Joint Center for Poverty Research and the co-director of the Northwestern/University of Chicago Interdisciplinary Training Program in Poverty, Race and Underclass Issues. Prior to that she had been Dean of the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and was a faculty member at Princeton University. Blank left higher education in 2009 to become U.S. Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs under President Barack Obama and in 2012 was named as U.S. Secretary of Commerce.


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At the time, search committee member Peter Barris said of Blank, “The Presidential Search Committee met with an incredibly competitive pool of candidates and unanimously recommended Rebecca. The committee found Chancellor Blank to be unparalleled and impressive in her power to articulate a comprehensive and unifying vision across Northwestern’s constituencies and inspire as a proven collaborative and bold leader.”

With sadness and in the letter titled “I’m Very Sorry to Deliver This News,” Blank said, “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.”

Still, she offered hope for her future and the future of the university. “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.”