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Remembering the 'vital,' 'optimistic' Elizabeth Garrett

Cornellians and colleagues on campus and from across the country reflected on the passing of President Elizabeth Garrett, who died March 6 after a battle with colon cancer. Here are some of their reactions:

“We join with the entire worldwide family of Cornellians in sending our most profound condolences to Andrei Marmor and his family on the passing of our colleague and friend, Beth Garrett,” David Skorton, Cornell’s 12th president and Garrett’s predecessor, wrote on behalf of himself and his wife, Robin Davisson. “It is truly tragic to lose such a vital, dynamic, creative and passionate person at any age, particularly at her young age. Her family and the entire Cornell community are in our hearts and thoughts.”

“When I stood on the Arts Quad yesterday looking out toward the lake, I could not help but remember a different scene there six months ago on that beautiful, sunny day as Beth was inaugurated,” said Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences and co-chair of Garrett’s Inauguration Committee. “That day was filled with a sense of promise and celebration. Yesterday we gathered under cloudy skies with a deep sense of loss and mourning for what might have been.”

Dean of the Law School Eduardo Peñalver ’94 said: “At the Law School, we mourn Beth in a special way because we have lost not only a leader, but also a colleague and a friend. Over a hundred students, staff and faculty gathered in our courtyard yesterday for the moment of silence in Beth’s honor. Standing there with them, listening to the chimes, I thought about the day Beth was introduced as Cornell’s new president under a tent in that very same courtyard. Her passing is an unbelievable tragedy.”

“Beth was a strong, optimistic, direct leader,” said Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Opperman. “One time, we were walking back from an event and she told me that when she was done being president, she looked forward to her role as a faculty member. We knew her mostly as our president, but she was a scholar and a teacher at heart. Her passion for the student experience and the centrality of the role of faculty in that experience drove every decision she made.”

Graduate student trustee Annie O’Toole, a law student who served on the Presidential Search Committee, said: “Beth was a fearless leader whose intellect, passion and drive pushed Cornell to be better in the short time she was our president. I wish that we had the opportunity to be guided by her steady leadership for much longer. I am grateful to have worked with and learned from Beth, and I have personally grown from having Beth to look up to as a lifelong student, lawyer and leader.”

“Beth Garrett is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known,” said David L. Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma and former senator. Garrett served as Boren’s legislative director and tax and budget counsel in Washington, D.C. “She is one of the most outstanding students to ever graduate from the University of Oklahoma,” he said. “Her remarkable intelligence was matched by her caring heart and strong character. She will be missed by all who have known her.”

“Beth Garrett was a remarkable person,” said Jonathan Culler, the Class of 1916 Professor of English at Cornell, who also served on the Presidential Search Committee. “[She was] extraordinarily vibrant and alive, interested in everything and able to engage with issues – social, academic, political – at the highest level. It is very hard to believe that she is gone.”

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said of Garrett: “This is somebody who was brilliant – like a laser – she was so smart and so focused and so energetic. She worked harder than anybody. I think that’s why, despite her relatively short tenure, she’s going to be remembered as a president who left a significant legacy.”

Hunter R. Rawlings III, Cornell’s 10th president and current president of the Association of American Universities, said: “Although Beth served just eight months as president of Cornell, she was well known in our community from her service for more than a decade as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Southern California … All of us are deeply affected by her death.”

USC President C.L. Max Nikias said Garrett, former USC provost, “proved herself to be a remarkably dynamic leader with a singular gift for inspired, innovative thinking. So many of us recall her remarkable energy, her tenacious commitment to her work and her deep passion for our community.”

At the University of Virginia School of Law, where Garrett graduated in 1988 and was named UVA Distinguished Alumna this February, Dean Paul G. Mahoney remembered Garrett as “a brilliant and prominent alumna [and] also a dear friend to many members of our faculty. We will miss her energy, intelligence and good humor.”

Garrett “was wholeheartedly committed to furthering the education and growth of those around her,” said New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “She devoted her life to creating a better future for everyone, and she understood that in order to accomplish that, part of her responsibility as a leader was to boldly challenge the status quo. As the first woman to lead Cornell University as its president, she lived that promise herself.”

State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca, considered Garrett “a lovely, warm and accomplished woman who was poised to be a great leader at Cornell.”

“Beth was a whirlwind of brilliance, energy and passion, continually inspiring me to do more to reach my full potential,” said Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, who also co-chaired Garrett’s Inauguration Committee. “She brought humanity and humor to her work, and was the first one to reach out to offer compassion or assistance in times of personal need. It was a joy and honor to know her, to work with her and to be her friend. I miss her terribly.”

“From the moment she arrived on campus, Beth Garrett let us know that faculty were her top priority,” Acting Dean of the University Faculty Michael Fontaine said. “We feel her loss keenly, but we will always remember her very much alive and at the helm of our university.”

Student Assembly member Peter Biedenweg ’17 said: “From the moment I heard her unwavering voice during her inauguration speech, I knew she was the intelligent, strong leader Cornell needed. She continually emphasized government involvement as a way for us to make a difference as students, and this was something that moved me and many others. She made herself open to students and faculty alike and took the time to learn more about how and where she could best help.”

“Once, I sent her a draft reply to a request we had received, and in it, I danced around a point upon which we could not agree with the author,” Opperman recalled. “She said, ‘If we can’t agree, say so, it is more respectful than leading someone on.’ … I learned that being strong and direct, when combined with a brilliant mind, love of life, optimism and resilience, is a powerful and compelling conversation. Beth was a force. With a dazzling smile.”

Ritter added: “There are so many things I will miss about Beth – her humor, her smile, her energy and infectious optimism, and her deep belief in the role that higher education can play in fostering democracy.”

Media Contact

John Carberry