September 21, 2015

Elizabeth Garrett Outlines Vision at 13th Inauguration

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Elizabeth Garrett delivers her inaugural address as Cornell’s 13th president in front of hundreds on the Arts Quad Friday morning. (Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer)

Hundreds of students, faculty, University dignitaries, alumni and staff filled the Arts Quad on Friday morning for the installation ceremony of Cornell’s 13th president, Elizabeth Garrett.

The ceremony began with a performance by Yamatai — Cornell’s taiko drumming group— immediately followed by the procession of the undergraduate and graduate colleges and professors.

Former Cornell presidents Frank Rhodes, Jeffrey Lehman ’77 and David Skorton were in attendance, as well as Kathleen Hochul, New York Lieutenant Governor and representatives from 84 universities and colleges across the globe.

Directly before Garrett’s speech. Robert Harrison ’76, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, gave an introductory speech and led the Investiture of The President, a formal presentation of symbols related to the president’s responsibilities.

Trustee Ezra Cornell IV ’70, lineal descendant of Cornell’s founder, symbolically presented Garrett with the Cornell Charter. Alan Mittman, the employee-elected trustee, presented Cornell’s seal, and Prof. Barbara Baird, chemistry, faculty-elected trustee, presented her with the University mace.

Garrett addressed the community on the Arts Quad against the background of a large red square, framing her alongside the statue of founder Ezra Cornell.

Garrett’s speech, which was tied thematically to the 1911 poem Ithaka by Greek poet C.P. Cavafy about Odysseus’ journey home, focused on Cornell’s recent expansion through projects including Cornell Tech. Garrett referred to Ithaca as a “journey [and] destination, but also a way of perceiving the world.”

“As Cornellians know, Ithaca is not only a place that profoundly affects those who spend time on this campus, but Ithaca — Cornell — is also a state of mind, both a beginning and a destination for a journey characterized by a rare excitement that stirs the spirit, body and intellect,” she said.

Throughout her speech, Garrett referenced not only the poem, but also the words of historic Cornellians including Ezra Cornell and Carl Becker. Both Garrett and Harrison made reference to Cornell’s dream of “an institution where any person could find instruction in any study.”

Harrison specifically focused on the continuing diversity of Cornell, which he called a “revolutionary, democratic, anti-elitist and quintessentially American institution.”

“The activities that have taken place on this idyllic hill in upstate New York have had lasting consequences for the rest of higher education and for the rest of the world,” Harrison said. “It is fitting that we turn the page on our yearlong celebration of the sesquicentennial that we begin the next 150 years with an historic first: for the first time in 150 years, Cornell University has chosen as its president a person from the great state of Oklahoma … and also a woman.”

During her speech, Garrett also discussed how a diverse faculty is key to the success of the university.

“Our objective with regard to faculty is to strive always for excellence – excellence that is multi-faceted and manifested in a myriad of ways,” Garrett said. “It includes an obligation to foster diversity of viewpoints, of experience, of identity, race and gender and of methodology.”

Garrett also focused on what she views as the faculty’s responsibility: preparing students for their futures.

“None are more important than our responsibility to our students — to send them off on their own journeys to learn and go on learning as they set sail to distant and unknown harbors,” Garrett said.

The speech also focused on ways in ways in which Cornell can grow through the its New York City tech campus while simultaneously striving for excellence in Ithaca.

“This opportunity [of Cornell Tech] becomes a defining moment for Cornell only if we bring Ithaca to Roosevelt Island and New York City and bring the lessons we learned there, back to faculty, students and staff here,” Garrett said. “We cannot allow physical distance to keep us from integrating all that we do in New York City with the long established excellence in Ithaca — the campus that will always represent the wellspring of the Cornell spirit.”

Garrett said Cornell is situated as a global university to help solve some of the serious issues facing society today, both locally and internationally.

“We must work together to understand difficult problems of our age, among them: sustainability and climate change, new approaches to health and well-being, the challenge of global and domestic income inequality, the influence of technology and the design of effective democratic institutions which revise solutions through interdisciplinary and campus collaboration,” Garrett said.

She said some of these issues can be addressed by a constant effort to engage the different campuses towards common goals.

“I’ll work with the provosts, deans and faculty to put structures in place that generate and nurture those collaborations, not just internally, but through increasing our ability to obtain external funding from governments, foundations, corporations and philanthropies,” Garrett said. “The connections we are forming with outside entities eager to support our entrepreneurial ambitions, made salient by Cornell Tech, must benefit not only our faculty and campus in New York City, but they must reach this campus bringing new possibilities to faculty and students here and creating economic opportunities not just for New York City, but for Ithaca and upstate, as well.”

One of the particular issues she addressed was the negative view and a feeling of college’s declining value in society, saying that she realizes that “higher education in the United States is a subject of great public criticism.”

“Pundits and politicians contend the cost is too great, the value — questionable, the experience — not sufficiently valuable and the opportunity not fully accessible to all who deserve it,” Garrett said. “Certainly, there is room for improvement in any institution of great durability, but it is beyond dispute that an intense residential undergraduate experience at America’s great research universities is one of the very best investments that any family can make.”

Garrett ended her address to the audience by returning to the poetic theme of Ithaca.

“Let us conclude with his final words that will comfort us on his journey ahead: ‘Ithaca gave you a marvelous journey. / Without her, you wouldn’t have set out … Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / you will have understood by then what these Ithacans mean,’” Garrett said. “I look forward to working with all of the Cornellians: faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, and supporters to navigate the next page of this remarkable journey — travelling to the many diverse Ithacas that await our discovery.”

Following Garrett’s address, Prof. Alice Fulton, English, read her set of inaugural poems, and members of the Graduate Assembly and Student Assembly read passages related to Cornell’s history.