Former UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank announced Monday that she is stepping down from her new job as the next president of Northwestern University and is instead being treated in Madison for an aggressive form of cancer.
Blank, 66, announced her decision in a letter she described as “among the most difficult and painful I’ve ever written.” Her announcement comes on the same day that she was scheduled to begin her new role as President of Northwestern. Her last day as UW-Madison chancellor was May 31st.
“The president’s job requires multiple events, long days, travel and constant energy, especially in the first year,” Blank said in the letter. “I’ve always been able to afford this in previous jobs, but my doctors are advising me that the treatments I’m starting will make it almost impossible to do the job you need in a new president.”
“I have no words to express how disappointed and sad I am to tell you this,” Blank added. “It was my pleasure to join you in Northwestern, a world-class institution that is close to my heart.”
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Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon said in a statement that Blank “has wrapped her arms around this community and our state’s flagship university for nearly a decade, and today we wrap our arms around them.”
“To say this cancer started a battle with the wrong person is an understatement. Her courage and determination, combined with the world-class care she will receive at UW Health, gives us the utmost hope,” added Brandon. “Becky is a Madisonian. She belongs here and we welcome her home with love and support.”
Blank took over as UW-Madison Chancellor in 2013. Over the course of her nine years at university, she guided the school through the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as ongoing challenges presented by limited government funding and an ongoing tuition freeze for undergraduate students.
She also oversaw the launch of Bucky’s Tuition Promise and Badger Promise, full-tuition scholarship programs that have served more than 4,000 Wisconsin students whose families make less than $60,000 a year.
Jay Rothman, president of the University of Wisconsin system, described Blank as “an advocate for higher education.”
“While this is extraordinarily difficult news, everyone who knows Becky knows of her struggle and resilience,” Rothman added. “We will do whatever we can to support Becky with her treatment process and wish her well as she begins treatment here at UW Health in Madison.”
Blank announced last October that she would step down as chancellor of UW-Madison to succeed Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro and become the university’s first female president.
“We all know that nothing in life is guaranteed,” Blank said in the letter. “This past week has probably seen the biggest changes I’ve ever experienced in such a short amount of time. I regret the missed opportunities to work with all of you across campus to make Northwestern even better in the years to come.”
According to a statement by Northwestern University Board of Trustees J. Landis Martin, Schapiro will remain president until Northwestern University selects his successor.
“Our thoughts are with Rebecca and her family at this difficult time,” Martin said. “We are grateful for the time she has served as our President-elect and we know she is grateful for the care and support of the entire Northwestern community.”
Former UCLA law school dean and UW-Madison’s next chancellor, Jennifer Mnookin, said in a tweet that she was “devastated” by Blank’s diagnosis.
“I send wishes and prayers to her and her family as she focuses on her health and treatment,” Mnookin added.