Cornell University’s First Female President, Elizabeth Garrett, Succumbs to Cancer One Month After Diagnosis

Elizabeth Garrett
Elizabeth Garrett

The first woman president of Cornell University, inaugurated in September, died Sunday after being diagnosed with colon cancer about a month ago, university officials said Monday.

University President Elizabeth Garrett. 52, had undergone aggressive treatment at Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell’s biomedical research unit and medical school in New York City, and had been released Feb. 19 from the intensive-care unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, according to the university’s acting president, Michael Kotlikoff.

“Beth was simply a remarkable human being — a vibrant and passionate leader who devoted her life to the pursuit of knowledge and public service and had a profound, positive impact on the many lives that she touched,” Robert Harrison, chairman of Cornell’s Board of Trustees, wrote in email to faculty, staff and students.

Garrett, who came to Cornell from her post as provost of the University of Southern California, was named as president Sept. 30, 2014, and started in her new job July 1. She spent four years as USC’s provost, the university’s second-highest official, and also was the first woman in that position.

“This is a woman who was absolutely fearless in the way she approached the agenda, and she was going to get things done,” said Andrew Tisch, vice chairman of the Board of Trustees. “In her six months of tenure, she’s left a great legacy. I last saw her a month ago … and she appeared to be feeling great.”

Her appointment to the presidency at Cornell meant that women were leading half of the USA’s eight Ivy League universities. In 2004 Amy Gutman became president of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, in 2007 Drew Gilpin Faust became president of Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and in 2012 Christine Paxon became president of Brown University in Providence, R.I.

“I … think it’s important for strong women to be lifted up, because they can be role models, not only to younger women, but to all people,” Garrett said in an October 2014 interview not long after she was chosen for the Cornell job. “There isn’t any reason that women can’t lead universities like Cornell, like Harvard, like Penn, and it allows people to move forward understanding that the beliefs they had in the past about people’s capabilities being aligned with characteristics like gender are beliefs that are just wrong.”

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