Northwestern president appointee pulls out after cancer diagnosis

Rebecca Blank, who was until recently head of Wisconsin’s flagship campus, to return to state to fight aggressive form of disease

July 12, 2022
Source: Northwestern University
Rebecca Blank

Rebecca Blank, who only recently stepped down as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has called off plans to become the president of Northwestern University after being diagnosed with cancer.

Dr Blank was due this week to start as Northwestern’s first female president when she received the diagnosis, which she described in a note to the university community as “an aggressive form of cancer”.

She planned to return to undergo treatment in Madison, where she ended an eight-year tenure as Wisconsin’s chancellor in May.

The cancer “will require all my strength and resolve to fight, prohibiting me from being able to serve as your next president”, Dr Blank wrote.

Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern since 2009, will remain in the role until a new successor can be found, the university said.

Dr Blank was an economics professor at Northwestern from 1989 to 1999, and one of her department’s first tenured women. She served as US undersecretary of commerce for economic affairs in the Obama administration.

In her message to the Northwestern community, Dr Blank said she was “grieving the lost opportunities” at the university. “We all know that nothing in life is guaranteed,” she said.

In a statement, ;Dr Schapiro said: “I ask that all of us at Northwestern keep Becky in our thoughts.”

At UW-Madison, the interim chancellor, Karl Scholz, said he and other university leaders were “absolutely devastated by the news”, adding, “I know Becky will undertake her treatment with the same energy and focus with which she performed her duties as chancellor.”

Dr Blank announced her decision concerning Northwestern just days after the chancellor of the nearby University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, said he was stepping down from the position to focus on his own aggressive cancer, a glioblastoma brain tumour. Professor Zimmer served as Chicago’s president from 2006 until 2021, when he initially was diagnosed and treated for the disease. The role of chancellor was created for him to continue with some of the fundraising and strategic functions of the president’s job.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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