(Michelle Feldman / Sun File Photo)

September 18, 2015

INAUGURATON | An Interview With President Elizabeth Garrett

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(Michelle Feldman / Sun File Photo)

The Sun: What issues do you see facing Cornell right now, how do you and your administration plan to address those issues, and why do you think they are priorities?

Garrett: Our priorities are faculty and students. Cornell is a spectacular institution, and what we want to do is continue its trajectory so it continues to lead the world in higher education in this century. Faculty, of course, are the great foundation of a university. Faculty give the university its academic values, and are the strength of a university. And we have terrific faculty to support, but we also need to bring more great faculty to Cornell. The provost and I will be working with the deans and the faculty to identify great faculty to bring here, to support our faculty who are here and to raise money to support those faculty.

The second priority is our student experience, which can always be improved. With respect to the graduate residential experience, we’ll be working with students to ensure that it is the best experience possible in the 21st century. We will think about how Engaged Cornell is going to shape the undergraduate experience and about how we will encourage students to move across schools and disciplines to tackle problems of importance. We’re also focused on making sure that the experience for professional and graduate students is among the best in the country.

The Sun: How do you believe your experiences as a lawyer will inform your decisions and viewpoints as an administrator dealing with issues facing Cornell, ranging from sexual assault and hazing to academic diversity and student discourse?

Garrett: I suppose my background as a lawyer affects everything I do. But I will say that with those issues that you mentioned, I first react to them as a university professor. When I think about issues relating to sexual assault and hazing, I think my first reaction is that of someone who is part of an academic community, where that behavior is not tolerated nor acceptable. And I always want to project in the very strongest terms that our community does not tolerate sexual violence, assault, hazing or other kinds of behavior like that. I think that we as an institution must always focus on education and make sure that people know what behavior is what unacceptable and under what conditions unacceptable behavior tends to occur. We also need to very robustly support bystander education. I think of us as part of a community, which means that we take care of each other. And if we see one of our community in danger and in a vulnerable position, we need to intervene and protect that person. When unacceptable behavior occurs, that behavior needs to be punished. And we need to make sure that we have processes in place to find out what happened and then to levy the appropriate discipline.

You also talked about academic diversity and discourse. I believe that diversity is one of the strengths of American higher education and one of the great strengths of Cornell. We want to continue to encourage diversity in all its manifestations, backgrounds, race, ethnicity, perspectives, ideologies and geographic backgrounds. What we do at a University is study and try to solve some of the world’s hardest problems. And you do that better when you bring people from diverse experiences, perspectives and backgrounds together.

The Sun: What do you believe the University can do to address the needs of minority student groups, and does Cornell have anything planned to do so?

Garrett: I think that diversity is the strength of higher education and a particular strength of Cornell because of our founding and dedication to principles of diversity, though not always perfectly implemented. I think we can do many things to support our minority students. First is that we’re an academic institution that produces some of the very best research in the world about challenges facing minority communities and about challenges facing groups of students in higher education, and I think we ought to take advantage of our own research as we think about how to move forward. We have a tremendous number of programs that support our students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. We have programs that aim to increase dialogue between these groups and to learn about differences. I just toured with Ryan Lombardi some of those facilities, such as the program houses. I’m very proud of what we do, and we look forward to continuing to support those students. As you know, we have a terrific diversity initiative called Toward New Destinations, and each year we pick a different emphasis. This year is ‘The Lived Experience of Diversity.’ And by that I think we want to learn more about what it means to live in this diverse community. What are the great benefits we see — not only in our research and teaching — but also in our personal lives and growth as human beings? And we also want to think about the challenges of that. What are challenges to having people from a lot of different perspectives and backgrounds?

The Sun: In light of the student activism that took place on campus earlier this year, what do you believe is the appropriate relationship between students, faculty, the administration and Cornell’s trustees?

Garrett: So I should first say that I’m very proud to be at an institution where students are engaged. When I was a student I was in student government, and I participated in events and activities on issues that I thought were of great importance politically for the university and for the state and the nation. So I actually celebrate that, and I think Cornell has long celebrated that. And I think the Board of Trustees, many of whom are Cornell alumni and have had the same experience as students that you all have, also celebrate that process of engagement. And I know it is our hope to provide more opportunities for students to interact with the trustees. Our trustees and alumni in general are enormously supportive of the institution, and from my experience, they derive a great sense of pleasure in getting to know the students, hearing about their views and providing advice from their own experiences. And many of our faculty members have the same background as engaged students. As university president, part of my role is to ensure that we have an environment where people can freely and fully express their views, where we have robust freedom of expression and dialogue and discourse. But we also recognize that our mission is to teach and to do research and creative work. So while we ought to have very robust First Amendment freedom, we also have to acknowledge that there is teaching and research and scholarship going on that can’t be disrupted. So there are some rules of engagement, I think, that we have acknowledge and live by. And we also have to listen to one another. Part of the University is thinking about probing other peoples’ arguments, and aggressively questioning arguments that we disagree with, but we are dedicated to a process of rational discourse and taking reason and science and probing for strengths and weaknesses to move toward understanding what’s right and what’s true.

The Sun: What do you see is the relationship between Cornell and New York City, given that we have our medical campus there and the soon-to-be Cornell Tech?

Garrett: Cornell is on every continent of the world. Domestically, however, we do have this amazing opportunity in that we are the only research university in the United States that has a significant presence in this amazing college town, Ithaca. And now we have this amazing presence in one of the world’s greatest international cities. If you think of all the wonderful places your friends are going, they’re in one or the other. There’s nobody that has both. And I think that is the opportunity for Cornell — to take this duality and make sure that what we do with it is to create this institution of higher education for the 21st century, and to ensure that what we do in New York City is for the benefit of Ithaca and that what we do in Ithaca enhances what we do in New York City. Ithaca is our home, but the ability to take some of what we’re learning here to NYC is a unique opportunity. And then to think about some of the things we’re learning there — whether it’s tech transfer, training public officials in a metropolis as the ILR school does, or thinking about architecture as our AAP school does. Taking those lessons and bringing them back to Ithaca is really exciting. So my role as president is to ensure that we make the most of this opportunity. I also like the fact that our campus on Roosevelt Island is in some ways another aspect of our land-grant mission. It is a land grant from a government that has asked us to play a role in shaping how technology affects the future — just as we were asked 150 years ago to think about how a University can take its knowledge to the world, to shape how the world reacts to problems.