Interview with Elizabeth Garrett

We speak to the professor of law who is soon to become first female leader of Cornell University in its 149-year history

November 27, 2014

Elizabeth Garrett will become the first female leader of Cornell University in its 149-year history, it was announced in September. She is currently provost and senior vice-president for academic affairs at the University of Southern California and the Frances R. and John J. Duggan professor of law, political science, finance and business economics, and public policy.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on 30 June 1963.

How has this shaped you?
I have a deep connection with Oklahoma. My mother’s family arrived when the state was Indian Territory, working as schoolteachers. My father’s family came during the Oklahoma land run. Oklahoma has Progressive Era roots that include egalitarian ideals, a belief in the value of education, and a sense that anything can be accomplished by hard work and creative intelligence. The prairie landscape provides a sense of limitless opportunity.

How does it feel to be the first woman in Cornell University’s history to lead the institution?
Being the first woman president of Cornell, just as I was the first woman provost at USC, puts me in the position of being a role model – not just for young women, but also for men. It is important for women and men to see strong and capable women in positions of leadership, so we understand that certain characteristics such as gender and race do not determine how well people do in those offices.

Your appointment brings the number of women running Ivy League institutions to four – half the group. How significant is this in terms of women in senior academic and higher education management positions?
Women have risen to leadership positions in more of the great research universities in recent years. But we still lack the number of women in senior faculty positions that will make this a more natural and frequent occurrence. As president of Cornell, I hope to serve as a resource for colleagues, especially women, who are interested in academic leadership possibilities, as I have at USC.

You take over as president bang in the middle of Cornell’s expansion into New York City with its technology campus. Will that be daunting, or do you relish the challenge?
Cornell’s growing presence in NYC was one of the reasons I was attracted to this job. Our faculty and students will profoundly influence how technology interacts with health, the built environment and connective media, and I’m eager to work with them in that exciting endeavour.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be open to new possibilities that you cannot now imagine; develop skills and qualities that allow you to be resilient in the face of change and uncertainty. Do not dismiss unanticipated opportunities or adhere too closely to a predetermined path. When you are presented with options, choose the path where you can make the most difference, and that will bring you the most happiness and fulfilment. I think I took that advice when I accepted the presidency of Cornell.

Tell us about someone you have always admired.
[US Supreme Court] Justice Thurgood Marshall, for whom I worked, dedicated his life to ensuring equality of opportunity for all Americans, no matter what their race, gender or background.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was a serious student, majoring in history. One of my undergraduate history professors is now a close friend who has supported me in my academic career and celebrated my scholarly achievements since college. My undergraduate experience taught me the joys of intellectual pursuit and began my fascination with politics.

What keeps you awake at night?
I am concerned that our country is reducing its historical investment in research universities – investment that has been an engine of scientific progress and cultural development.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best is the ability to create an academic environment where faculty and students in all disciplines can thrive, become leaders in their fields and produce scholarship and creative work that can change the world. The worst is not having time to produce my own scholarship or to share that research with students in the classroom.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a lawyer. I am told I made that announcement at the age of five and never wavered. I have not worked as a traditional lawyer, but I use the skills I developed at law school and through my experience as a legislative lawyer every day.

What do you do for fun?
My husband and I love to travel. Last summer we went to Cambodia and Vietnam, and we plan a long trip to Italy before I begin my term. We enjoy discovering new restaurants and imaginative chefs.

What is an undergraduate degree worth?
A degree from a research university such as Cornell that offers an unparalleled residential experience is the best investment a family can make. It profoundly changes a student’s life. A graduate will enjoy a brighter financial future because of greater economic opportunities, and will also lead a more fulfilling life and develop a deeper capacity for curiosity, imagination and further learning.

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