Elizabeth Garrett

‘Perspective and Joy’

Elizabeth Garrett ’88: Cornell University’s First Female President Offered UVA Lawyer Remarks Before Her Untimely Death.

lizabeth Garrett ’88 was just starting to make her mark as the first female president of Cornell University when she died March 6 after battling colon cancer. She was 52.

Garrett took her post as president of Cornell University in July, after serving since 2010 as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Southern California. An expert in the legislative process, the design of democratic institutions, the federal budget and tax policy, she had also been a professor and deputy dean for academic affairs at the University of Chicago Law School.

Garrett was involved in public service outside of education as well. In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed her to serve on the nine-member bipartisan Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform.

Her first job in academia was as a visiting professor at UVA Law during the 1994-95 school year. She was a visiting professor again for the fall 2001 term.  

Professor Kenneth S. Abraham encouraged Garrett to pursue academia when she was a young lawyer. “I was deeply saddened to learn of Beth Garrett’s death. Beth was my student, old friend and colleague,” Abraham said. “She was a wonderful person, a fine scholar and a loyal alumna. She told me that she proudly wore her Virginia academic gown and doctoral hood for her installation as the president of Cornell. This is a terrible loss for all of us.”

In January, Garrett was named the 2016 recipient of the University of Virginia Distinguished Alumna Award.

She provided answers to our interview questions in February, as she was about to undergo aggressive treat­ment for colon cancer, and just days after her diagnosis was announced. 

You’re the first female president at Cornell. What does that mean to you?

I have been the first woman to do a number of things. I was the first woman to serve as provost at the University of Southern California and am now the first woman to serve as president of Cornell. And I’ve frequently found myself in environments where there were few other women, including on the Law Review and other law school–related activities at UVA.

I am very aware of my special role as a “first woman” — and it’s a responsibility I take seriously. I see it as an opportunity to emphasize that these roles are not gendered; a woman can be a good leader of a top research university, just as men have been for a long time. It is a message that is important not only to female students and junior colleagues, but to men as well. Our male students will be working side-by-side with women, and working for women. We should all celebrate that.

My parents never indicated that there was anything a woman couldn’t do on account of her gender. So in some ways my upbringing sent me into the world with a confidence that no one has been able to shake. One message I always try to impart to young women is that confidence, self-assurance and the willingness to confront people who are wrong or biased is an important part of success.

What are some of the challenges facing higher education today?

Our first challenge is to maintain American higher education’s preeminence in research and scholarship in the face of declining federal support. Since the end of the Second World War, research universities, with support from the federal government, have been the nation’s primary producers of basic research — creating knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which, time and again, has made major advances possible, though sometimes not until many years later. To give just one example, the current genetics revolution — which is yielding medical treatments targeted to patients’ individual genetic profiles, crop species that are resistant to harsh climate conditions and damaging pathogens, and many other benefits — grew out of basic research in molecular biology undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s.

Faculty who are excited about their work as researchers and scholars, and who have the resources they need to be successful, not only contribute to the growth of knowledge, but also convey their approaches to discovery to their students, who will become the next generation of intellectual leaders, creators and discoverers. Those whose work leads to patents, license agreements and startup ventures have the added satisfaction of contributing to economic development and providing students with experience not only in research, but also in entrepreneurship.

As we seek to attract the best faculty, who, more than any other single factor, determine the excellence of our institutions, universities need to provide adequate startup funding for new faculty, seed money for visionary and exploratory projects, and research infrastructure on which so much progress depends.

In the current budget climate, adequately supporting our faculty requires, in addition to federal dollars, resources from philanthropy and corporations, with appropriate safeguards in place to ensure research integrity and academic freedom. We must also turn to private philanthropy, foundations and other non-government sources to support essential work in areas where federal support is less available, including in the arts and humanities.

Second, we must demonstrate the value of the educational experience, particularly the value of the residential undergraduate experience at major research universities such as UVA and Cornell, amid widespread public concern about benefits and cost. While much of the public discussion has focused on tuition levels and student debt, many private universities, including Cornell, provide generous need-based financial aid to keep debt manageable and the cost of attendance within reach for students from all economic circumstances.

Moreover, higher education is still one of the best investments an individual or family can make, and will pay dividends to graduates, in income and life satisfaction, and to society, for years to come. Students who pursue their undergraduate education in residence at a major research university gain not only specific facts and skills but also the tools to keep on learning and adapting long after their time with us on campus has passed. They develop broadly applicable skills in com­munication, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis and a broad understanding of global history, culture and the arts that is not only useful in itself, but also adds perspective and joy to their lives.

How did your education at UVA Law prepare you for your career?

I owe a great deal to UVA for its role in my professional development. I enjoyed my time in law school — I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was 5 years old and the challenge of my classes only deepened my interest in the law as a tool of social and economic change. I find that as president, just as I did as provost, I use my legal training every day, particularly as it relates to negotiation among parties with seemingly different interests and constructing initiatives that benefit many groups on campus. 

After my first year in law school, Professor Stanley Henderson, my Contracts professor, suggested I consider clerking for a judge. He thought I should perhaps apply to work with a Supreme Court justice, which led to my clerkship with the inspirational Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

Several years later, after time working in Holland and Washington, D.C., Professor Ken Abraham called me to convince me to consider the academic world, and my first job as a law professor was at UVA, where my professors supported me while I was on the job market. My first classes were taught in rooms I’d learned in as a student, and my mentors were my former professors.

From there, I’ve had a series of interesting and challenging jobs, not quite along the path I originally saw. I particularly credit Professors Henderson, Abraham, Richard Merrill and Lillian BeVier for challenging me to expand my focus beyond a conventional law practice so that I could remain open to all sorts of interesting possibilities, especially when they built on each other.

What’s a favorite memory from your clerkship with Justice Thurgood Marshall?

I have been fortunate to work with so many of my heroes, including Thurgood Marshall. As the best lawyer of the last century, Marshall taught me a great deal about the law, its effects on ordinary people, and its ability to change society.

The true impact of this extraordinary man was brought home to me not during my clerkship, but at the end of his life. On a cold day in January 1992, nearly 2,000 people lined the streets of Capitol Hill, waiting to enter the imposing Great Hall of the Supreme Court building. As they filed past the coffin and the official portrait of Justice Marshall, some were silent, but many parents whispered to their children, telling them about Thurgood Marshall, sharing how his work had changed America and their lives, and describing opportunities open to them that he helped to establish and institutionalize. Many left flowers or other items before the portrait. I remember one moment that particularly captured the somewhat contradictory feelings of loss and hope that could be seen on the faces during the 12-hour vigil: A mourner left behind a copy of the petitioners’ brief in Brown v. Board of Education with the following inscription at the top: “We will always remember.”

Being president of a university is a demanding job. What do you do to unwind?

I build time into my calendar to exercise regularly — and I encourage students to do that as well. It is a tremendous way to relieve stress, and helps put problems and challenges in perspective. I enjoy needlepoint for the same reason. My husband and I enjoy traveling and often do so with friends; spending time with friends who don’t see you as president first is essential to keep perspective. I am also an avid reader. Earlier this year I saw “Bridge of Spies,” the Steven Spielberg movie about spying during the Cold War, and then immediately downloaded the book. It’s a fascinating story, and, of course, I applaud the American lawyer, James Donovan, who helped orchestrate the exchange of spies on Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge. He is the kind of lawyer we should all aspire to be.

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