President Elizabeth Garrett died of colon cancer last night at her home in New York City after receiving treatment at Weill Cornell Medicine, the University announced this morning. The thirteenth Cornell president and first female president was 52.
“It is with utmost sadness that I write to inform you that our president, colleague and friend, Elizabeth Garrett, passed away late last evening after a brave battle with colon cancer,” the Chair of the Board of Trustees Robert Harrison ’76 wrote in an email to the Cornell community this morning. “There are few words to express the enormity of this loss.”
Harrison called Garrett a “remarkable human being” and a “vibrant and passionate leader” who he said impacted the lives of countless students, faculty members and friends.
“She was the quintessential Cornellian,” he wrote in the email. “From the moment I met her during the presidential search, it was clear to me that she had the intellect, energy and vision not only to lead Cornell, but to be one of the greatest presidents in our 150-year history.”
Harrison emphasized that Garrett’s legacy at Cornell will be long lasting, writing that her actions over the past eight months advanced the University on a path toward “continued excellence.”
“She will leave a lasting legacy on our beloved institution and will be terribly missed,” he wrote.
Harrison announced in an email last month that Provost Michael Kotlikoff would serve as Acting President of the University after President Elizabeth Garrett underwent surgery related to her illness.
Garrett, who was elected on Sept. 30, 2014 and inaugurated on Sept. 18, announced on Feb. 8 that she was undergoing an “aggressive treatment program” for colon cancer and had decided to delegate several of her commitments to other members of Cornell’s senior leadership.
Although she served as Cornell’s president for less than one year, Garrett was actively involved in campus issues, working to ameliorate housing problems for graduate students, approving the opening of Anabel’s Grocery store, rearranging Day Hall leadership and defending freedom of speech on campus.
“We must heed the call to continue to be radical and progressive. In that regard, we must understand the motto given to us by Ezra Cornell — ‘I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study’ — in a way that is compatible with the unwavering pursuit of excellence in a world infinitely more complex than he could have imagined,” said Garrett in her inauguration speech.
Several of Garrett’s decisions also sparked controversy, including her reversal of President Emeritus David Skorton’s 2035 carbon neutrality goal and the January decision to form the College of Business.
Many members of the Cornell community, including students, faculty and alumni, criticized Garrett’s decisions and the lack of transparency in the administration’s decision-making.
“President Garrett said, ‘The purpose of Cornell is to create knowledge.’ We need to be creating the knowledge of how to [reach the 2035 goal.] We need to show other universities and the entire United States how to do that,” Student Assembly vice president of internal operations Mitchell McBride ’17 said at an S.A. meeting last month.
However, throughout her tenure, Garrett emphasized the importance of supporting every Cornell constituency and often expressed her support for students and faculty.
“Our students are simply amazing,” Garrett said at her State of the University address in October. “It is important to provide ample support so they both contribute to and gain from the academic experience at Cornell.”
Before her presidency at Cornell, Garrett served as the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Southern California, where she oversaw the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as well as the Keck School of Medicine of USC and 16 other professional schools, according to the University.
Garrett was also awarded the University of Virginia’s distinguished alumna award in January, a recognition that aims to “honor alumnae whose contributions at the highest level have brought about progress in a wide range of fields,” UVa said.
Prior to her academic tenure, Garrett was appointed by then President George W. Bush to serve on a bipartisan Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform, the University said. From 2009 to 2013 she served as a commissioner on the California Fair Practice Political Commission, an independent political oversight agency.
She also worked as a budget and tax counsel and legislative director for Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the University.
Before her time at USC, Garrett was a law professor at the University of Chicago. She earned her B.A. in history from the University of Oklahoma and received her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law.
“Let us build on the visionary purpose of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, and let us embrace the quest for something better that is also part of our heritage,” Garrett urged attendees at her inauguration.
Plans will soon be announced for memorial gathering on Ithaca’s campus in the near future, according to Harrison.
The administration has no information to release yet on when a search for Garrett’s replacement will begin or who will be considered, according to Cornell’s Media Relations.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that President Garrett died last night at Weill Cornell Medicine. In fact, although she received treatment there, Garrett died in her New York City home.