Since stepping on campus, President Elizabeth Garrett has been busy. Among many things, she has challenged Day Hall leadership to cut inefficiencies, headed the search for a new provost, vowed to address graduate student diversity and workers’ compensation and even begun Instagramming as @CornellPresident.
All this comes at a time when Cornell faces many uncertainties in its future. Colleges are still adjusting to a new University budget model implemented in 2014, the University continues its expansion in New York City with Cornell Tech and students have returned to campus after a semester filled with protests centered on rising costs of tuition and lack of administrative transparency.
As the University moves forward in its next 150 years, many administrators, faculty and students are turning to Garrett to see how her vision will alter and change the course of Cornell.
A Vision Centered On Students
Garrett, previously the provost at the University of Southern California, succeeded President Emeritus David J. Skorton on July 1. She holds faculty appointments in the law school, Department of Government in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Johnson Graduate School of Management.
The 13th president and the first female president, she will be installed in a ceremony in the Arts Quad this morning, delivering an inaugural address outlining her vision for the University.
That vision includes “enhancing the student experience” and “supporting our diverse population of graduate and professional studies,” Garrett wrote in an opinion column in The Sun on Aug. 25.
“I hope to set the stage for a robust discussion of what students should learn, including the essential role of a broad liberal arts education and how to apply knowledge even as we assimilate and analyze it,” Garrett wrote. “A residential research university like ours allows students to learn in the classroom, laboratory and studio, of course, but also in residence halls and in local and global communities.”
She continued that expanded study abroad opportunities, Engaged Cornell — the University’s 10 year initiative to incorporate community engagement into the curriculum — and new technologies that enabled greater student engagement would be major focuses going forward.
Garrett’s vision for higher education extends beyond Cornell, though, and in an Aug. 24 essay for The Washington Post’s higher education blog, she defended the freedom wielded by institutions of higher education by outlining the responsibilities she viewed universities had to its faculty, student and the public.
“We must provide our faculty with an environment that encourages freedom of inquiry and thought, as well as with material support,” Garrett wrote. “All faculty must be able to pursue their best work — in teaching and research — unhampered by politics or prejudice.”
Emphasizing the importance of a university’s students, Garrett wrote that higher education’s responsibility to its students involved providing both an education of “specific facts and skills but also the tools to keep on learning.” If a university fulfilled this mission to its students, Garrett argued, that it also fulfilled its responsibility of sending engaged, thoughtful and humane graduates out into the world.
A Legacy at USC
While serving as USC’s provost and previous to that as the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs, Garrett oversaw the school’s Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as well as 17 other graduate and professional schools.
Throughout her term at USC, Garrett directed efforts to hire new faculty from a broad range of academic disciplines, including cognitive bioscience, arts and the humanities as well as the quantitative social sciences.
She also spearheaded the creation of several new postdoctoral programs, among them the Provost Postdoctoral Scholars Program in the Humanities and Provost Clinical Resident Fellows at USC.
“Provost Garrett has helped maintain the university’s volume and quality of externally funded research and expanded the university’s postdoctoral programs, strategically focusing on priorities such as the humanities, diversity in the digital realm and clinical fellows,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias in a letter to the USC community in Oct. 2014.
Garrett began working at USC in 2003. Before becoming provost and senior vice president for academic affairs in October 2010, she served as vice provost and vice president for academic planning and budget at USC.
In 2005, she was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the nine-member bipartisan Tax Reform Panel, according to her biography.
Garrett was also nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as assistant treasury secretary for tax policy in 2009, but declined the position for personal reasons.
A Life in Law
Garrett first entered the world of academia through law. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1985, subsequently receiving her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law.
Garrett went on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal from 1989 to 1990 — who she said was the “greatest litigator of the last century.”
This experience “was one of the most special experiences of my life,” Garrett said, outlining her thoughts about her time working for Marshall during a lecture she delivered at USC on Sept. 7, 2011.
Marshall, who served as a Supreme Court justice from 1967 to 1991 and was the first black justice on the court, is best known for his role as a lawyer in the landmark victory of Brown v. Board of Education, a decision that desegregated public schools in the United States.
Marshall’s vision of equality for all also made a difference for Garrett while she worked for him, she said.
“It’s important to understand that Justice Marshall’s vision for America for equality was not one limited to the realm of racial [and] ethnic equality. It was a capacious view of equality for all Americans to participate,” Garrett said.
Her clerking experience continues to influence her academic and administrative career, Garrett said.
“My own research is informed a lot by my background,” she said. “I clerked for … Justice Thurgood Marshall and then I worked in the United States Senate working with [former] Senator David Boren from Oklahoma, where I served as his legislative director in his tax and budget council.”
Garrett also served as a professor of law at the University of Chicago, where she acted as deputy dean for academic affairs.
She has also been a visiting professor at several academic institutions, including Harvard Law School, the University of Virginia School of Law, Central European University in Budapest and the Interdisciplinary Center Law School in Israel.
The Next 150 Years
Garrett steps into the presidency of an institution that heralds its motto, “any person, any study” — a revolutionary concept during the time of Cornell’s inception.
In an interview with The Sun on Sept. 1, Garrett stressed that moving forward the University’s academic mission should always remain the first priority.
“Our mission is to train the next generation of leaders, and to produce creative scholarship and work that moves us closer in the search for truth. We not only perform discovery-driven research, but we also work to bring that out into the world and have it make a difference,” Garrett said. “Our ambitions exceed our resources, which is good. But one of my jobs as president is to bring as many resources to that academic mission as I can.”