Former UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank announces aggressive cancer diagnosis, returns to Madison for treatment

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Former University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank will no longer serve as president of Northwestern University due to an aggressive cancer diagnosis.

Blank, 66 years old, was poised to begin her career as the first female president of Northwestern University on Monday but instead delivered troubling news of a recent cancer diagnosis she said will prevent her from serving in the new role.

"The job of president requires multiple events, long days, travel and constant energy, especially in the first year," Blank said in a statement. "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."

Blank said she received the news about her cancer diagnosis last week but did not say which type she's fighting. Blank and her husband moved to Evanston, Illinois but said they will return to Madison for cancer treatment. The current Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro will remain serving until a new successor is named.

"This last week has probably brought the biggest changes that I have ever experienced in such a short period of time," Blank said. "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."

In 2012, Blank took over as Chancellor of UW-Madison and during her 12 years she battled the COVID-19 pandemic along with funding challenges primarily tied to the Universities two-year tuition freeze for undergraduate students. She was one of the longest serving Chancellors in UW-Madison history.

There was outpouring support from UW-System and elected officials within minutes of Blanks cancer diagnosis.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and First Lady Kathy Evers said they were incredibly saddened by the news.

"Becky and Hanns, as you return to Wisconsin for this difficult journey, know the entire state is thinking of you and is behind you in this fight," Gov. Evers said in a tweet.

President of the UW-System Jay Rothman called Blank a champion for her work in higher education.

"She is a champion for higher education and was positioned to finish her illustrious career at a university that was also close to her heart and home," said Rothman in a statement. "While this is extraordinarily difficult news, anybody who knows Becky knows of her fight and resiliency."

Karen Walsh, president of the UW-System Board of Regents reflected on Blank's time serving at UW-Madison.

"She was an extraordinary leader here at UW-Madison whose passion and experience was poised to greatly benefit Northwestern University," Walsh said. "Her voice and fierce advocacy for higher education is critical to all the work we do, and we will keep her in our thoughts during these trying personal times for her."

Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon released the following statement:

“Becky 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 her. It is an understatement to say this cancer has picked a fight with the wrong person. Her grit and determination, combined with the world-class care she will receive at UW Health, give us the utmost hope. Becky is a Madisonian. She belongs here, and we welcome her home with love and support.”

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