March 7, 2016

EDITORIAL: Honoring and Furthering President Elizabeth Garrett’s Legacy

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We are profoundly saddened by the news of Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett’s death last evening. Throughout her tenure, she demonstrated remarkable leadership ability and personal strength, and it is clear that Cornell has lost a true force in its community. Garrett came to Cornell with a strong vision for higher education — one centered on the student experience, diversity and academic freedom for faculty — and worked tirelessly to implement it.

Exactly two months after her administration began on July 1, Garrett announced plans to increase support for graduate students, including a doubling of funds for student childcare grants for graduate students, a higher minimum research stipend and more graduate student housing. Two days after announcing these initiatives, Garrett addressed the Faculty Senate, promising to direct more revenue towards faculty research and recruitment. She approached her presidency with energy, making herself available often to input and criticism from the Cornell community. She fielded student questions regarding diversity and shared governance at Student Assembly meetings and addressed concerns raised by Black Students United in a meeting in Ujamaa. She worked to grow the University’s global presence by announcing an international tour and committing to extend international opportunities for undergraduates. These are just a handful of instances that exemplified Garrett’s dedication to this University.

While her leadership was not without controversy, Garrett’s direct and efficient leadership style was admirable, and she will also be remembered for her warmth and ability to relate to and communicate with members of the community. Garrett came to Cornell at a pivotal point in our history, as sesquicentennial celebrations ended and as colleges across the nation confronted issues of race, diversity, shared governance and student activism. Garrett never skirted these pressing matters, facing them head-on.

Though the University has made incredible strides under her leadership, we continue to face many of the issues Garrett inherited. As we mourn the loss of a strong leader, we must also look forward. As Cornellians, it is crucial that we join together, listen to each other and collaborate during the tough times ahead. Recent battles over the Board of Trustees’ approval of the College of Business, the trustee vote against fossil fuel divestment and the reversal of the 2035 carbon neutrality goal demonstrate that Cornell still struggles today to balance transparency and shared governance with implementing radical, progressive changes. As Cornellians, we must all work together on the issues we face today.

As we urge students, faculty, alumni and staff to continue holding Cornell accountable, we also urge the administration to be clear with what lies ahead. Cornell needs a leader, but it also needs to find one through a transparent process that actively seeks input from Cornell’s constituencies. How we can best honor Garrett and her dedication to the University is to care for Cornell as Garrett did — with enthusiasm, openness and honesty.

  • Craig Hansen ’80

    I offer condolences for Elizabeth Garrett’s untimely death, but among the news stories, I cannot help but be shocked that she recently deprioritized Carbon Neutrality from Cornell’s goals. I must hope that among the concerns that a new president will bring forward for Cornell, that revisiting this issue will be among them. While oil prices are currently near historic lows, primarily due to Saudi influence and other global economic factors, fossil fuel, both investment and use, as well as climate change are issues that Cornell should be building solutions toward in well in advance of future inevitable crises. I’m equally surprised that Cornell has not chosen to use their collective knowledge of climate change issues to divest our endowment of fossil-fueled corporations – if they had done so before the oil-price collapse, undoubtedly we would be economically ahead.

    Carbon Neutrality as a goal for Cornell is truly important, not just for the local environment, but as a focus of attention for Cornell’s Engineering and public-policy-related students and faculty. By taking on this eminently solvable problem on their own home base, students and faculty will be able to learn how its done and take their experience out to the wider world where they’re headed upon graduation. As an alumni of both Cornell and Stanford, I’ve seen both Universities use their centralized environmental facilities as both a focus of efficient operation of the campus and a platform for innovation. Demonstrating the highest priority of climate change to students, faculty and alumni alike is an irreplaceable experience to add to Cornell and to demonstrate how important climate change is now and in the future. Cornell should absolutely be walking the walk to enhance how they will incorporate climate change factors into all decisions.

    I’ve worked with Professor Johannes Lehmann, who is truly the leading researcher on agricultural biochar, which is the only provably effective way to extract carbon from the atmosphere at globally significant scale and put it to valuable economic use. As an engineer accustomed to working with semiconductor technology, it’s been a challenge to scale up from picoAcres to climate scale, and nothing save biochar can be scaled up to the level needed to counter the trainloads of carbon being dug up and inserted into the atmosphere. Nothing but agriculture operates at meaningful scale to reduce atmospheric carbon. As we are now blowing past 400ppm at a truly dangerous rate, the civilized world needs to achieve carbon neutrality and to actually being carbon levels back down to the 350ppm level. The Mauna Loa trends graph above shows the awsome power of agriculture: it pumps 6-7ppm per year out of the atmosphere, and biochar can harness that power, bringing half of waste agricultural carbon back into alarmingly degrading soil, and thereby improving soil for years to come. Cornell already has a unique resource in Prof. Lehmann on this issue, and he’s well-deserving of the extra attention that a Carbon Neutrality goal for Cornell can bring to the table. Indeed, with biochar in the mix, Cornell could be the first University to go past Carbon Neutrality and actually become meaningfully Carbon Negative. It would be an awesome statement for Cornell to be able to say that with Carbon Negativity, we balance not just the carbon that we’re emitting now, but actually begin reversing carbon emissions all the way back to the founding of the University 150 years ago.

    • Cornell grad

      Save it for next week, Sparky.

      What a tool.

      • Cornell Alum 2012

        RIGHT ON

    • George

      Unbelievable that this comment would appear in connection with President Garrett’s death. Not everyone shares your priorities, Mr. Hansen.