Northwestern president-elect resigns after cancer diagnosis

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Rebecca Blank, Northwestern University’s incoming president, announced Monday that she would no longer be able to lead the institution after being diagnosed with “an aggressive form of cancer,” which she said “will require all my strength and resolve to fight.”

“This letter is among the most painful and difficult I have had to write,” Blank wrote in a message to the Northwestern community. “The job of president requires multiple events, long days, travel and constant energy, especially in the first year. 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. I do not have the words to express to you how disappointed and sad I am to be telling you this.”

Blank, 66, received the diagnosis last week. The day she shared the news was supposed to be her first day as president-elect on the Evanston, Ill., campus, where she was scheduled to work for two months before officially replacing long-serving incumbent Morton Schapiro in September. Blank would have been Northwestern’s first female president.

“We were incredibly excited to have such a dynamic and experienced leader join Northwestern,” wrote J. Landis Martin, chair of the Northwestern Board of Trustees. “Our thoughts are with Rebecca and her family during this difficult time.”

Blank has strong ties to Northwestern; she served as a faculty member in the economics department from 1989 to 1999. She also briefly served in Barack Obama’s cabinet as the acting U.S. secretary of commerce from 2012 to 2013.

Before being named president of Northwestern, she spent eight years as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She and her family will return to Madison for her treatment.

When it was first announced last October that Blank would leave UW Madison, she told Inside Higher Ed that she was excited for “another adventure” and was looking forward to returning to her old place of employ.

“It’s not that this is a push factor out of Wisconsin as much as it’s a pull factor to Northwestern,” Blank said. “It feels a little like coming home.”

Schapiro, who was set to retire in August after 13 years at the helm, will continue to lead the university until an interim or replacement is found.

The search committee for Blank’s replacement will be led by Peter Barris, who also headed the committee that hired Blank. Barris is slated to succeed Martin as chair of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees in September.

Patrick Sanaghan, author of From Presidential Transition to Integration and president of the Sanaghan Group, a higher education consulting firm that specializes in leadership transitions, said that keeping the search committee consistent is helpful for maintaining stability.

“You have to be careful and thoughtful about how you move forward. You really need that trustworthiness, that institutional knowledge,” said Sanaghan (who is also an Inside Higher Ed opinion contributor). “It’s a fragile time there right now.”

Sanaghan said the challenge is to acknowledge the sadness and disappointment of the abrupt change without dwelling too much on it, especially since Blank is alive and fighting the disease. She could even beat her cancer and come back in a few years, he said.

“Any incoming president is now in a difficult situation, and not to name the ghosts would be silly,” he said. “But you don’t want it to feel like a funeral. You want to move the institution forward.”

Planning for the Worst

Blank’s case is tragic but not unprecedented. Cornell University’s first female president, Elizabeth Garrett, died of colon cancer in 2016 after only eight months on the job. And in April, Clayton State University’s first Black president, T. Ramon Stuart, resigned less than a year after stepping into the role due to health issues resulting from kidney failure.

Susan Resneck Pierce, former president of the University of Puget Sound and president of SRP Consulting, another higher education consulting firm focusing on leadership and governance, said Northwestern’s situation would be much more difficult if they couldn’t turn to an incumbent president in good standing.

“It’s going to be about as seamless as you can imagine under these really tragic circumstances,” she said. “There are times when it would be much more challenging for an institution, and in those cases they really need to plan ahead.”

Sanaghan said that higher education institutions don’t often have the same robust succession planning as corporations or other organizations, which can lead them to conduct lengthy—and expensive—external searches for leadership positions.

“You have to develop people. If you don’t have some internal candidates who are prepared to lead your institution for a number of months, then you really haven’t built out your bench,” he said. “In higher ed, we do 80 percent of our hires outside of campus, and I think that’s not a good situation.”

Preparing for every scenario, of course, is impossible. In 2005, after a decade as president of Loyola University Maryland, the Reverend Harold Ridley died suddenly in his campus residence. Ridley’s predecessor, Joseph Sellinger, had also died unexpectedly while in office.

In the book Presidential Transitions: It’s Not Just the Position, It’s the Transition, John Cochrane, former chair of Loyola’s Board of Trustees, wrote that despite the back-to-back deaths of the institution’s leaders, there “were no plans at all” for contingency when Ridley passed.

“We were focused on the future,” Cochrane wrote. “I’ve thought many times since then about how much easier the process could have been had we been better prepared for this possibility.”

Sanaghan said that having a contingency plan—even for the most unlikely of circumstances—is an important part of a university’s strategic governance.

“You never anticipate these tragedies,” he said. “But as a strategic leader, you’ve got to make sure this scenario is thought through. That’s uncomfortable for most people.”

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