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.