Former University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) Chancellor Dr. Rebecca Blank died Feb. 17 from pancreatic cancer at age 67.
Blank stepped down from the role in 2022 to become the first female president of Northwestern University, was one of the longest-serving chancellors in recent UWM history, having led the school for almost 10 years.
She never got the chance to preside over Northwestern. On the day that she was scheduled to begin the presidency, she resigned from the post because of her failing health.
“Our community has lost a brilliant leader who cared deeply about making this great public research university stronger, more accessible, better connected to the community and the state, and better positioned to make a difference in the world,” said UW-Madison Chancellor Dr. Jennifer Mnookin, Blank's successor. “Becky inspired faculty, staff and administrators with an approach to problem-solving that combined vision, creativity and pragmatism."
During her tenure, Blank launched a full-tuition scholarship program for low-income Wisconsin students and led a $4-billion fundraising campaign, and the school reduced the graduation gap between white undergraduate students and students of color nearly in half, created hundreds of endowed faculty positions, and launched a new school focused on computer and data sciences.
But, in her final press conference, she also expressed sadness for not making more progress on the issue of students of color feeling unwelcome on campus.
Blank’s economic work focused on low-income labor markets, macroeconomics, government policy, and the measurement of poverty. She held a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Outside of higher ed, Blank had also served as a senior staff member on the Council of Economic Advisors during the George H.W. Bush administration; member of the council during the Bill Clinton administration; and deputy secretary and acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
"Dr. Blank's four years serving in my administration was just one part of her extraordinary life," former President Barack Obama said. "Whether in government or academia, she devoted her career to reducing inequality and increasing opportunities for others, and made everyone around her better."
UWM recently named the Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History and a professorship in her honor. The school is now also planning a memorial service and a campus remembrance for Blank.
“No other job in the world would let me lead an institution with its own marching band, sailing club, mascot and ice cream flavors,” she wrote in her final farewell blog post to the campus. “In no other job do you get to address 50,000 people in Camp Randall on graduation day when they are all in a happy mood and can’t wait to hear what you have to say.”