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Northwestern mourns the passing of Rebecca M. Blank

Former professor and president-elect is remembered as a passionate leader and dedicated friend

Evanston, Ill. --- Rebecca M. Blank, former president-elect and professor of economics at Northwestern University, died Friday, Feb. 17, from cancer. She was 67 years old.

Blank was selected in October 2021 to succeed Morton Schapiro as president of Northwestern. She served as Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison until May 2022 and was preparing to join Northwestern after that, but in July 2022, she announced that she had been diagnosed with cancer and would step down from her role as president-elect in order to focus on her health and her family.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend and colleague whose connections with this University ran deep,” said Michael Schill, who was appointed president of Northwestern in August 2022. “Following the announcement that I had been selected as the seventeenth president of Northwestern, Becky was the first person I called.  Her advice, friendship and encouragement have helped guide my early weeks and months as the leader of this great institution. Northwestern mourns the passing of a great leader who will forever be one of our own.”

Blank had deep ties to Northwestern, where she was on the faculty of the Economics Department from 1989 to 1999. She also served as director of the Joint Center for Poverty Research and co-director of the Northwestern/University of Chicago Interdisciplinary Training Program in Poverty, Race and Underclass Issues.

“We are deeply saddened by Becky’s passing,” said Peter Barris, chair of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees, who also chaired the search committee that led to Blank’s selection. “Becky was a distinguished leader, and it was a privilege to work with her during the presidential transition before she had to withdraw.

“Becky’s legacy will live on in the achievements and influence she has had at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in higher education at large and in poverty research,” Barris said. “The Northwestern community sends our sincere condolences to her husband Hanns, her daughter Emily, and the rest of her family.”

Leader in higher education

Blank, who had long been involved with issues of inequality and equity through her research, made improving diversity and access a priority during her time as chancellor at UW-Madison. In 2021, she received the prestigious Posse Star award from The Posse Foundation for her leadership in education and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. 

Educational outcomes steadily improved during Blank’s nine-year tenure at UW-Madison, which is now one of the top ten public schools in six-year graduation rates. She advanced the institution’s mission of research and innovation, emphasizing the role of the university in nurturing entrepreneurship and driving economic development.

Blank also is widely credited for forging new relationships with legislature and state government that enabled her to take steps to improve the university’s finances following a period of budget cuts.

Renowned researcher and advisor

An internationally renowned economist, Blank focused on the interactions between labor markets, individual behavior, government policy and the macroeconomy. She had published extensively on issues of poverty, low-income workers and inequality. 

Therese McGuire first met Blank at Princeton in the 1980s, when Blank taught there and McGuire was a visiting assistant professor. The two struck up a friendship that lasted more than three decades.

“Becky was one of my dearest and closest friends and professional colleagues for more than 35 years,” said McGuire, a professor of strategy at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “She was one of the most brilliant, brave, accomplished people I know. I will miss her dearly. Her loss is a huge personal loss and a huge loss for the profession.”

Blank’s distinguished research and policy portfolio was recognized with a lifetime achievement award as a 2021 Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association, and she was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for almost two decades.

Blank served in three presidential administrations, most recently as acting secretary of commerce and deputy secretary of commerce under President Barack Obama. She also was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton, a senior staff economist on the Council under President George H.W. Bush, and she spent time as the Robert S. Kerr senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy research think tank in Washington, D.C.

Blank is survived by her husband, Hanns Kuttner, and their daughter, Emily, who graduated from Northwestern.