In a message to the Northwestern University community Monday morning, former University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank shared she has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and, as a result, will be unable to fulfill her incoming role as president of the university.
Blank announced her diagnosis last week would require all her strength to fight, and treatments she will be starting would prohibit her from carrying out the job as president, which she would have assumed on September 1.
“I do not have the words to express to you how disappointed and sad I am to be telling you this,” Blank said about her resignation, calling the letter ‘among the most difficult and painful [she has] ever written.’ “I was excited to be joining [everyone 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.”
The current president of Northwestern, Morton O. Schapiro, has agreed to remain in his role until a successor is named. Peter Barris, who helmed the initial search committee for president, will lead the search for Blank's replacement.
In October, Blank announced she would leave UW-Madison to become president of Northwestern at the end of the academic year. July 11 was supposed to be her first day as president-elect on the campus in Evanston.
In a statement, Northwestern said Blank plans to spend the coming months focusing on her health and family. According to UW, Blank plans to stay in Madison for cancer treatment at UW Health.
Campus and community reactions
Blank’s announcement was met with shock and sadness from the Northwestern community as well as Wisconsin students and faculty, who had come to know her since she became chancellor in 2012.
“I can speak for all of us in the leadership of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in saying that we’re absolutely devastated by the news that Chancellor Emeritus Becky Blank has been diagnosed with cancer and that she will not be assuming the presidency of Northwestern University,” Interim Chancellor John Karl Scholz said in a statement on Monday. “As Becky and [her husband] Hanns begin this extremely difficult journey, our UW-Madison community will hold them in our hearts and do all we can to support them.”
Incoming Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin shared her own grief and sent her wishes and prayers to Blank and her family.
The Associated Students of Madison reacted to the news on Twitter, where they shared their sorrow and expressed gratitude for her long service to UW.
“We the Associated Students of Madison are devastated to hear of the recent cancer diagnosis of Chancellor Rebecca Blank,” the student governance body said. “We send best wishes to her and her family at this time. Our organization of students has only known the University of Wisconsin Madison under her leadership and we are grateful to have had her commitment to this university and shared governance.”
ASM Chair Ndemazea Fonkem, who has worked closely with Blank throughout her tenure, put it succinctly, stating “F— cancer. We wish Chancellor Blank a full recovery, and we acknowledge the incredibly difficult decision she made to step down as President at Northwestern.”
ASM’s relationship with Blank was often fraught and marked by tensions over a lack of communication and debates over the UWPD’s role on campus. In their statement, ASM revealed Blank attended the previous session, where she answered questions directly from the student body.
“It was a chance that nobody took for granted, and we are incredibly grateful for the time we have spent working with Chancellor Blank,” ASM said. “Thank you for your work, Chancellor Blank. We believe in you.”
Jay Rothman, the President of the University of Wisconsin system, thanked Blank for her leadership at UW and vowed to do “whatever we can to support [Blank] as she begins treatment here at UW Health in Madison.”
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers also offered his solidarity with Blank during this time.
During Blank's time at Wisconsin, the second-longest tenure of any current public Big Ten School leader, UW-Madison expanded its research programs, increased graduation rates and weathered through the tumultuous years of the pandemic while coming out on top.
Blank also spearheaded the creation of many programs such as Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which guarantees free tuition to in-state students with a gross household income below $60,000. The first full class of Bucky’s Tuition Promise recipients just graduated this May.
“We all know that nothing in life is guaranteed,” Blank concluded in her letter. “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.”
Gavin Escott is a photographer and staff writer for multiple desks at The Daily Cardinal, focusing on city and state news. Follow him on Twitter at @gav_escott.