Elizabeth Garrett at her inauguration as Cornell’s 13th president on September 18, 2015.

A Cornellian Through and Through

Watching, from start-to-finish, the presidency of Elizabeth Garrett

On this Giving Day, I remember President Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell University’s 13th president, who died last month after a battle with colon cancer. Following her death, the University established two funds in her memory: one for student scholarships and one for colon cancer research. As Cornellians take time today to remember her influence on the University, I’ve written some of the thoughts I’ve mulled over the past weeks.

Just over one month ago, like many others, I found myself shocked learning of the death of Cornell University’s 13th president. Historic in nature (no sitting president has died while in office throughout Cornell’s 150-year history) and dispiriting to many, President Elizabeth Garrett’s death placed the university’s future in uncertainty. Over the last month, I’ve found myself trying to grip with the various realities of the situation facing Cornell.

Since her cancer diagnosis became public, I’ve heard rumors of her declining health and the need for Cornell to find a new president. But until March 7, the day the University announced Garrett’s untimely death at 52, everything led me to believe that she was going to bounce back and fight.

Since the beginning, Cornellians have always been fighters. Crusading against what society has deemed normal is engrained in Cornell’s identity of “freedom and responsibility.” And as the president of this Ivy League institution, Elizabeth Garrett embodied the spirit of Cornell, fighting for the ideals that have shaped the Hill for 150 years.

One of my peers at The Cornell Daily Sun expressed his disbelief that he covered the entire presidency of Elizabeth Garrett from start-to-finish, from announcement-to-conclusion. This simple statement resonated with me over the last few weeks. As a reporter at The Sun, I’ve covered a wide-range of topics, from the development of Cornell Tech, struggles within the Greek system, and the expansion of housing in Collegetown. While all of these will likely be influential in Cornell’s history to varying degrees, no series of events during this period at Cornell will be seen as more intriguing and tragic than the brief presidency of Elizabeth Garrett.

Halfway through my sophomore year, I was sitting in one of my communication courses during what seemed to be an average day. The week before, the members of The Sun elected me to serve as the publication’s next managing editor, a position for which (I believe) I was hardly prepared for. The first few issues of The Sun I oversaw were not how I wanted them to be, and I questioned daily as to whether the post was right for me.

And then, out of nowhere, I received an e-mail that would shape the remainder of my time at The Sun.

As I stowed my belongings at the conclusion of the class, I noticed an e-mail on my phone: “President David Skorton to lead Smithsonian Institution.”

A press conference following the announcement that Cornell’s 12th president, David J. Skorton, would be leaving to helm the Smithsonian Institution. In the background, I awkwardly take notes. Photo by Joe Wilensky, Cornell University Photography for the Cornell Chronicle.

For a moment, I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s cool.” But then I realized what this meant: President Skorton would be leaving the university after nine years of service.

In the following weeks, The Sun covered a wide-range of topics related to Skorton’s departure and the incoming search for a new president. (I must admit that the quality of The Sun improved after the announcement of Skorton’s departure. Perhaps the resulting coverage helped put us back on track).

After the initial wave of coverage, life on campus went back to business as usual. Much like individual stress levels during prelim season, the news cycle ebbed and flowed in the following months.

Months later, on September 29, 2014, I received a phone call from the head of the University’s media relations office. He candidly told me that there would be an announcement the following day at noon that The Sun should ensure we could cover. Of course, he was referring to the announcement of the next president.

The front page of The Sun following the announcement that President Garrett would become the University’s 13th president. The phrase “to helm” has since become a running joke in the newsroom.

That night, we assembled a team of six or so individuals to assist with this “special project.” Reports began to trickle that the University would announce its next president. The next day, the Board of Trustees announced it would convene a special session before noon.

And then at 11:45, the news was out: Elizabeth Garrett, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Southern California, would become Cornell University’s 13th president. Gathered in Myron Taylor Hall, we all sat waiting for her and University officials to walk out and address the Cornell community for the first time. Garrett walked on to the stage along with vice presidents and trustees, sitting in the middle seat and donning a blazer and a Big Red scarf. She discussed her vision for Cornell, which would evolve over the coming months before and while she was president.

I first spoke to President Garrett over the phone a few days later. We had approximately an hour-long conversation, during which I asked her about her stance on a number of issues facing Cornell, as well as higher education at large. She spoke in detail regarding current university policies and what she would like to change as if she had been on the Hill for decades. Her willingness to fight for change and devotion to a place in which she was just named president only days before was remarkable.

Before she arrived at Cornell, Garrett had an esteemed career. A legal expert, Garrett fought for justice as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. She served the United States on a number of panels and commissions. And at Cornell, she fought for what she thought was the best direction for our beloved university.

In the short amount of time she led Cornell, she brought to the table a number of controversial ideas — the College of Business, not committing to divestiture from the fossil fuels industry or carbon neutrality, to name a few. As she raised these ideas, she did so in a manner that directly challenged years of structures put in place for decades at Cornell. But by doing so in such a way, President Garrett fought in a manner reminiscent of the founding ideals of this university.

President Elizabeth Garrett at her inaugural dinner in Barton Hall on September 17, 2015.

She spearheaded the charge to be radical and progressive, two of the pillars championed by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White. At her inauguration in September 2015 — the denouement of Cornell’s sesquicentennial year — she spoke of the journey to Ithaka and the need to be bold to address the challenges of higher education, quoting C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka.” Behind her on the Arts Quad stood the statue of Ezra Cornell, the founder of our university who directly challenged the status quo of higher education, bringing a quality education to “any person” who wished to pursue “any study.”

Looking back, the journey she spoke of seems more obvious. She was ruthlessly efficient and sought to cut down much of the “Big Red Tape” that has become a staple in Cornell’s identity for some time. But even while she advocated for change and looked at higher education through a different lense than most others, little doubt exists that she did so with kindness, passion, and absolute, tireless enthusiasm.

President Garrett died the day after I finished my term as editor of The Sun. I was already grasping with mixed emotions over completing what had been defining part of my undergraduate career. Now suddenly, like much of campus, I was filled with grief. As I walked to a meeting in Day Hall, I saw administrators embrace, crying, trying to make sense of the situation.

Keeping my own composure remained difficult during a moment of silence across campus that day, in which thousands of students, faculty, and staff members stopped what they were doing to remember the work of Elizabeth Garrett. We again gathered on the Quad, standing at the same place where we gathered just months before for her inauguration, this time facing the opposite direction, gazing upon the statue of Cornell’s first president.

More than 1,000 individuals gather on the Arts Quad for a moment of silence and chimes concert commemorating the life of President Elizabeth Garrett on March 7, 2016. Photo by Jason Koski, Cornell University Photography for the Cornell Chronicle.

During my time at Cornell, I have never seen the campus community unite as it did following the death of President Garrett — from the candle light vigil to the memorial in Bailey Hall. Unlike many students, I was fortunate enough to interact with President Garrett a number of times and to learn from her leadership style. Filled with kindness and enthusiasm, she always brought each of these discussions always came back to one thing: the students.

“Our students are simply amazing,” she said at her only State of the University address last October. Similar sentiments were expressed at a meeting I was just the Friday before her death, in which Acting President Michael Kotlikoff expressed her disappointment that she would not be able to discuss the issues facing Cornell with students.

There is no doubt that we are entering a trying time for our fair Cornell. Although a search for the University’s 14th president will soon be underway, we cannot for the journey Elizabeth Garrett chose for Cornell. Cornellians will need to stand together, ask for help, and continue to fight for the progress President Garrett wanted. To do so, of course, is to be a Cornellian through and through.

The top editors of The Cornell Daily Sun’s 133rd editorial meet with President Garrett for the first time as a board.
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