In Memoriam: Distinguished Alumna Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell’s First Female President

UVA alumna and Cornell University President Elizabeth Garrett died Sunday night after undergoing aggressive treatment for colon cancer.
March 07, 2016

The University of Virginia community is mourning the loss of Cornell University President Elizabeth Garrett, whose death was announced Monday.

Garrett, a 1988 graduate of the School of Law whom the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center last month named the 2016 recipient of the UVA Distinguished Alumna Award, recently underwent aggressive treatment for colon cancer.

“The entire Law School community mourns the loss of a brilliant and prominent alumna,” Law School Dean Paul G. Mahoney said. “Beth Garrett was also a dear friend to many members of our faculty. We will miss her energy, intelligence and good humor.”

Garrett, 52, 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, Garrett has also been a professor and deputy dean for academic affairs at the University of Chicago Law School. Her first job in academia was as a visiting professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.

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

“I was deeply saddened to learn of Beth Garrett’s death. Beth was my student, old friend and colleague,” Professor Kenneth S. 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.”

Bruce Bower, a Law School classmate of Garrett’s whose son is a freshman at Cornell, saw her at the school in the fall. She “dazzled the room with her command of higher-ed policy issues, [and] joked about how she would surreptitiously needlepoint during her first-year Contracts class,” Bower said. “She was a brilliant woman.”

Garrett provided answers to interview questions in February for an upcoming UVA Lawyer feature, as she was about to undergo aggressive treatment for colon cancer. Her answers to two of the questions serve as a reminder of her legacy and the importance of higher education, as viewed through her eyes.

Q. What does it mean to you to be the first woman president at Cornell?

A. 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. 

Q. What are some of the challenges facing higher education today?

A. 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 start-up 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.

Media Contact

Mary Wood

Chief Communications Officer University of Virginia School of Law