Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell's new president. Photo courtesy of University Photography

Editor’s Note: The following editorial is the first of three stories about Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell’s new (and first-ever female) president.

To submit an alternative or dissenting viewpoint, contact me anytime at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — Sitting in the corner of Elizabeth Garrett’s office is a metal shovel.

The shovel is a reminder of the new Cornell president’s past: It’s a holdover from a groundbreaking held while she was provost of the University of Southern California.

But the shovel is also, most likely, a symbol of the president’s future. Garrett is presiding over a period of historic growth at the Ivy League university now moving into its second 150 years — most notably, with Cornell’s $2 billion tech campus rising over the next 30 years in New York City.

Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell’s new president. Photo courtesy of University Photography
Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell’s new president. Photo courtesy of University Photography

I’ll be publishing follow-up stories from my interview on Tuesday with Garrett about a range of public policy questions facing Cornell. We’ll look at admissions policy, whether Cornell should divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry, and the stability of the university’s business model.

But I also wanted to begin by sharing my initial, personal reactions from meeting someone who will be so important to the future of our fair city of gorges. Because while what Garrett believes is obviously paramount, I’d argue it’s equally important that Ithaca residents get to understand who she is.

I can’t purport to really know that after one 30-minute interview and a couple of other encounters. But insofar as I have gotten a chance to know Garrett — to understand how she approaches problems rather than simply what her answers to those problems are — I thought those impressions would also be worth the Ithaca community’s time.

Here, then, were five of my first reactions to interviewing Cornell’s new president on Tuesday:

1 — Garrett didn’t hide behind jargon.

Academics love clouding their arguments with technical obscurants. Garrett didn’t do that.

In fact, she at times took pains to explain things in simple, clear terms — “I think a lot about the state of federal funding for research;” “We have organized things in a way that ensures that there is not a siphoning away of resources” — that sometimes seem foreign to the primary dialect of the Hill.

An academic that speaks like a human! Especially for a reporter, this was perhaps the most welcome surprise of the interview with Garrett.

Garrett with Mayor Myrick and Cornell VP Joel Malina, file photo from Cornell

2 — She’s careful not to criticize her predecessors.

Several times over the course of the interview — as you’ll see from the soon-to-be published transcript — I tried pushing Garrett about the university’s recent trajectory: Has Cornell done enough to enroll black students? Is it pushing out the middle class? Why hasn’t it done more to fight exploding tuition?

Garrett answered my questions. But — I think it’s fair to say — she also took pains not to say that former administrations or former presidents were to blame; she at no point suggested throwing them under the bus or even really admitting the school had failed in some particular course of action.

Some may view that as a partial elision of the truth. A more charitable (and, I think, more accurate) interpretation is that it instead reveals a certain amount of Garrett’s grace: Nobody wants a leader that turns difficult questions into a chance to malign his or her predecessors, even if that might be the easier answer to give.

3 — Her time working for Thurgood Marshall is not window dressing.

One of the most compelling parts of Garrett’s biography is that she clerked for Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court justice perhaps most famous for his role in the “Brown v. Board of Education” case and the subsequent desegregation of schools.

I knew this coming into the interview. But one of my thoughts leaving it was that Garrett’s work with Marshall really does appear to figure prominently in her worldview. She reached for her time with Marshall — and spoke about him in passionate terms — even when it wasn’t part of my initial question.

“(Marshall) was dedicated to equality of opportunity and he thought there were two models — education and voting,” she said. “And I think certainly Cornell wants to be one of those opportunities for students of all backgrounds.”

4 — She’s deeply versed in the complex economics of higher education.

My attempts to push Garrett on a range of questions — over rising tuition, over graduate student debt, over law schools’ efficacy — tended to run into a major roadblock: That higher education is so vast, so impossibly multifaceted, that various media narratives frequently fail to account for the underlying complexity.

“I think one of the things that’s been overlooked in the media is how diverse higher education is,” she said. “So we talk about the crisis facing higher education; we talk about the student debt crisis. But we don’t disaggregate it from the various segments of the higher education world.”

File photo of Cornell University

In some ways, Garrett’s fluency in the economics of higher education shouldn’t be surprising; she was provost of USC, after all.

But I think it also shows a really commendable trait in a leader — a basic refusal to see problems in one dimension, an unwillingness to give sound-bite answers that reflect a linear (and false) understanding of a certain issue or problem.

“Well, I think it’s complicated. I don’t answer things yes or no,” she said in response to one of my ham-fisted attempts to pigeonhole her on tuition.

“Life tends to be complicated.”

5 — Garrett is warm, personable, smart — and a burst of new energy for Cornell.

Garrett remembered my name. She knew about the Ithaca Voice and the office where we work. She recalled that I was a Cornell graduate and once was an editor of The Cornell Daily Sun.

These kind courtesies are, of course, insignificant compared to some of the decisions Garrett will have to make. But I think they’re important precisely because Garrett’s relationship with Ithaca will not be conflict-free.

Stock image of Cornell’s Arts Quad
Stock image of Cornell’s Arts Quad

It’s inevitable that Cornell and Ithaca officials will have differences over a variety of issues; they’re both too big, and occupy too much of the same ground, for that not to happen.

And there’s no way that someone in Garrett’s position can please everyone. I get kind of dizzy just thinking about the sprawling, innumerable, contradictory demands placed on a university president; the number of people and institutions she’s tasked with supervising — 20,000 students; about 1,600 professors; more than 250,000 alumni; 64 trustees; 7 undergraduate colleges; dozens of graduate programs; 7,000 nonacademic staff employees; satellite branches in NYC and the Middle East — is almost laughably large.

But if Cornell itself is an impossibly huge machine, I’ll take comfort that the university’s new leader radiates an innately human touch.

From what I have seen, Garrett is warm and charismatic, personable and empathetic, brainy and deeply invested in the immensely difficult task of improving higher education. And if that’s not enough to get the job done, she’s got a shovel, too.

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Jeff Stein

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