President Garrett speaks at her inauguration ceremony in September. She served as president for less than one year.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

President Garrett speaks at her inauguration ceremony in September. She served as president for less than one year.

March 7, 2016

Cornell’s President Elizabeth Garrett Dies at Age 52, Less Than One Year After Assuming Office

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Correction appended.

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.

President Elizabeth Beth Garrett and Ryan Lombardi, vice president of student and campus life, speak at a Student Assembly meeting in the Willard Straight Memorial Room in November,

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

President Elizabeth Garrett and Ryan Lombardi, vice president of student and campus life, speak at a Student Assembly meeting in the Willard Straight Memorial Room in November.

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.

GARRETT

ELIZABETH GARRETT

“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.

Michelle Feldman / Sun File Photo

Elizabeth Garrett speaks at a press conference, where it was announced that the Board of Trustees chose her as the 13th Cornell president. (Michelle Feldman / Sun File Photo)

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. 

University Resources: Members of the Cornell community seeking support can call Gannett Health Services’ Counseling and Psychological Services (607-255-5155), EARS’ peer counselors (607-255-3277), the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (607-255-2673), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or find additional resources at caringcommunity.cornell.edu.

54 thoughts on “Cornell’s President Elizabeth Garrett Dies at Age 52, Less Than One Year After Assuming Office

  1. I’m very saddened to hear this news. I had only met President Garrett a few times, but each time she was kind and friendly. She will be greatly missed by the Cornell community. My prayers go out to her family and friends.

  2. In her short time, she was not afraid to lead and push beyond our status quo. I might have agreed with everything she proposed, but I truly respected her leadership. May she rest in peace. Prayers to her family, friends, and the Cornell family for such a great loss.

  3. I am utterly shocked and saddened my this. My daughter is a freshman this year and we had the opportunity to hear her speak at orientation and meet her during an informal meet and greet gathering. Sympathies to her husband. What a tragic loss at age 52. This was so quick. She probably didn’t know she was ill or maybe ignored signs? A reminder to all of us to get a colonoscopy.

    • Either they caught it very late, or there were treatment complications. Some of the wording, “died after receiving treatment” sounds almost like it was some sort of treatment complication.

      A family member of mine was diagnosed with colon cancer close to two years ago. She underwent surgery, which initially seemed to go well. After nearly a week they discharged her in what seemed to be good health. Two nights after she was discharged, she started feeling unwell. She went to bed to take a nap and was dead within 15-20 minutes, apparently due to throwing a clot.

      • Oh my goodness, sorry to hear that. I agree with the wording being confusing. I guess it’s really none of our business.

    • Isn’t 52 young for routine colonoscopy without a family history? There are non-zero risks to the procedure (chronic infection, perforation).

      • My first colonoscopy was at 50 which my doctor told me was standard. What a sad loss of a brilliant leader.

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  5. I am shocked and extremely saddened by this terrible news of President Garrett’s untimely passing. In her short time on the Hill, she was a dynamic force and would have led our University to great places. My condolences to her family.

  6. Pingback: Cornell’s President, Its First Female Leader, Dies of Colon Cancer – The Ticker - Blogs - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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  8. Very sad news. However – note to Sun webmasters – I will not share this article with my facebook feed because it is impossible to stop the huge video ad at the top of the article from playing. There is a difference between ad revenue and letting the delivery of important news be completely overpowered by the advertisers. A little restraint here is the difference between news and spam pages.

  9. Very very sad. A remarkable woman and a remarkable life. Condolences to her family and the Cornell family at large.

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  11. Everything I read about her made me like her. She handled the racially charged protests on campus with respect and grace — met with the protesters to hear their grievances and seemed to have an honest, productive dialog with them. She was somebody who I thought would do an excellent job leading the university. Very unfortunate to have her tenure cut so short.

  12. Her response to alumni was remarkable – and at that leadership level, not many people choose to be so responsive. my heart goes to the family and the cornell family, which will miss her immensely. i am sure she has made her mark, as a leader and a fighter, small the time might be, and cruel destiny might be

  13. My family is deeply saddened by this tragic news. We truly believed she would completely recover from her illness. I had pleasure of meeting her at move in day for my son last August. She noticed me because I was wearing a USC T shirt.
    She hurried up to me and introduced herself. She told me she had arrived from USC where she was Provost. She spoke with me for some time and told me that both of my twins were at fantastic schools. I will cherish my conversation with her for ever. On many other occasions we heard her speak and she truly had outstanding experience, knowledge, and a great global vision for Cornell. May she rest in peace and our prayers go out to her family for strength as they move on.
    Sincerely, PM

    • I totally agree. We also met her on freshman move-in day and we were super impressed. I just cannot get this out of my thoughts today.

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  15. Condolences to the Cornell family on this sad day. What makes it even sadder and angry to this journalist is that this woman who passes as a journalist wrote that President Garrett died from COLIN cancer.

  16. As an undergrad at The University of Oklahoma in the 1980’s, I recall Beth Garrett as a force of nature – clearly destined for great things. The OU communityextends our condolences to Beth’s family and to our friends at Cornell.

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  18. I’m just sorry that she had to suffer in any way. Hateful, hurtful cancer. She was my sorority sister in Chi Omega. We grieve the loss of of her as sister.

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  22. Very sad news. Beth Garrett was my friend and colleague at USC. Condolences to her family. Rest in peace.

  23. Elizabeth Garrett was a powerful presence at my niece’s fabulous graduation at USC in 2010. Was not surprised that she was selected to be President of Cornell. Very untimely death for an outstanding scholar and leader.

  24. Pingback: First Woman President of Cornell Dies at 52 - How to do everything!

  25. I was unaware of this remarkable woman until seeing her beaming photo…and that sad headline. Yet I’m deeply touched to the point of tears. If I’m feeling this devastated, I can only imagine how those closest to her must feel. Someone who excelled in so many ways and dedicated her life to sharing what she had in an effort to assist others achieve their goals in life is to be admired, whether they are president of Cornell or a teacher with the local children’s play school. It is little consolation at this sad time, but Elizabeth Garrett lived her life doing what she wanted to do: enable others to achieve their life’s goals. And many more will continue to do that with her memory in mind. Very sad…but it’s nice to be reminded that there are people like her, people who really do care.

  26. I am very sad about her death. We seemed to have a special bond because she consulted me on her plan for the College of Business; she was able to listen to criticism, which speaks to her willingness to make improvements and changes to her way of thinking. Because we both had cancer at the same time earlier in February about which we talked with each other , I felt she was like a soul sister. I will miss her very much, especially her energy, astounding intelligence and resonance with everyone around her.

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  28. Very sad 🙁 One of my best professors at USC and a brilliant legal mind and a wonderful person. She will be missed.

  29. About a year ago, I arranged a lunch at Shutters on the Beach for her and a number of California’s most progressive architects. She truly understood their original contributions and importance to society. She will be missed by all of us.

  30. I knew President Garrett as Professor Garrett when I attended The University of Chicago Law School in the late 1990s. She was an incredibly smart and enthusiastic teacher, one of the very best I had in law school. It appears from these comments that she never lost the personal qualities that endeared her to so many as she moved on to bigger and better things. The entire world has suffered a huge loss upon her passing.

  31. I guess too bad for her family. As far, as I am concerned her responses of lack of responses when she met with Black students at Ujamaa House was uninspiring. She could feel sympathy with people in Paris, France, but had to be dragged out to hear with Black students on Cornell’s campus had to say, and then, she performed a cheap Bill Clinton imitation of “I feel your pain”. She then pulled out her “Hononary Soul Sister” card by telling Black students that she clerked for the late Thurgood Marshall, as if that was supposed to mean something. If Beth Garrett was an “Honorary Soul Sister” then should have known what to do, as opposed to being pulled out of Day Hall and dragged to Ujamaa House.

    I am sure that there is a farcical/hypocritical display of grief at Day Hall and East Hill. There are probably a number Cornell female administrators who hope and pray that President Garrett’s successor will be man, rather than a woman, because they rather work for a man, than a woman.

  32. I guess too bad for her family. As far, as I am concerned her responses, or lack of responses when she met with Black students at Ujamaa House was uninspiring. She could feel sympathy with people in Paris, France, but had to be dragged out to hear what Black students on Cornell’s campus had to say, and then, she performed a cheap Bill Clinton imitation of “I feel your pain”. She then pulled out her “Hononary Soul Sister” card by telling Black students that she clerked for the late Thurgood Marshall, as if that was supposed to mean something. If Beth Garrett was an “Honorary Soul Sister” then should have known what to do, as opposed to being pulled out of Day Hall and dragged to Ujamaa House.

    I am sure that there is an Academy award winning (really farcical/hypocritical) display of grief at Day Hall and East Hill. There are probably a number Cornell female administrators who hope and pray that President Garrett’s successor will be man, rather than a woman, because they rather work for a man, than a woman.

  33. Dear Anonymous,

    You write “I guess too bad for her family. As far, as I am concerned her responses, or lack of responses when she met with Black students at Ujamaa House was uninspiring. She could feel sympathy with people in Paris, France, but had to be dragged out to hear what Black students on Cornell’s campus had to say, and then, she performed a cheap Bill Clinton imitation of “I feel your pain”. She then pulled out her “Hononary Soul Sister” card by telling Black students that she clerked for the late Thurgood Marshall, as if that was supposed to mean something. If Beth Garrett was an “Honorary Soul Sister” then should have known what to do, as opposed to being pulled out of Day Hall and dragged to Ujamaa House.

    I am sure that there is an Academy award winning (really farcical/hypocritical) display of grief at Day Hall and East Hill. There are probably a number Cornell female administrators who hope and pray that President Garrett’s successor will be man, rather than a woman, because they rather work for a man, than a woman.”

    In your eyes she may not have handled things properly, however, are you capable of saying anything kind about her death….maybe even that you’re sorry?

    • Sorry about what — that she died? Every soul shall taste death. From the day that you are born, you are/were destined to die. Do I care about President Garrett? No. I did/do not give a damn about her, the same way she appeared callous, unsympathetic and unconcerned about Black people.

      In regards to her death; I will say this: May she get what she earned both in the grave and in the afterlife for what she did and was, when she was living in this world’s life.

      Did I answer your question?

      • As a minority and one who’s parents were interned in WWII, I can say that your self absorbed diatribe against Dr. Garrett would indicate you are a person who is unable to listen and must constantly remind everyone about past injustices and cannot move forward. Why do you think other more recent minorities have far exceeded the black experience? The lack of criticism of your comments from the general black community would indicate a tacit approval and fuels the racial divide. You are only perpetuating the problem you are trying to fix.

        Anonymous posts are a sign of cowardice!

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  35. The Trustees and the vetting committee both erred in selecting her. She appeared ill at the September 2015 ceremony…Did the vetting process include a full medical history? Mental health evaluations? A full physical, including a colonoscopy, etc?

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