Ithaca, N.Y. — Cornell announced Tuesday that Elizabeth Garrett will become the university’s 13th and first-ever female president.

The university noted that Garrett — who will be leaving her job as provost at USC — has decades of experience in law and academia.

While at USC, Garrett gave a talk titled “What Matters to Me and Why.”

In it, Garrett speaks extensively about the influence of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on her life.

Marshall, who died in 1993, was the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice, perhaps best known for his victory as a lawyer in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.

Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first black justice, worked with Cornell’s first female president.

Garrett clerked for Marshall.

“I can’t tell you how amazing it was to get the call from him,” Garrett said. “I wasn’t at all confident I’d get the job with Justice Marshall.”

Garrett said she was in part surprised because her work “had been characterized as relatively conservative politically.”

“It was an amazing opportunity to actually work for somebody who had made such a difference in the world,” Garrett said.

Garrett said she was asked to write an article about Marshall for his birthday. She said that while most writers touched on his work for racial equality, she focused on other aspects of his vision for equality.

“Justice Marshall, as a justice, was about a lot more than just those cases dealing explicitly with racial equality,” she said.

“I talked about his commitment to equality as the overriding constitutional provision in this country.”

Garrett also spoke about how this devotion to equality informed Marshall’s beliefs on campaign rules.

“Democracy is kind of messy … elections are supposed to be about fights about ideas,” Garrett said. “That never intimidated Justice Marshall.”

Garrett spoke highly of Marshall’s “capacious view” for equality for all Americans.

“I try to always talk about Justice Marshall … It’s important for all of us to remember what he did for the country.”

Garrett spoke of standing vigil on a cold day for 90 minutes after Marshall’s death.

“I feel part of my obligation … is to ensure that we always remember” Marshall’s efforts, Garrett said.

“But I also think we have obligations to try to instantiate his vision of America, to work to work to expand equality and the opportunity to participate.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.