“Fortune assists the daring.”
So goes the family motto of Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell University’s first female president and this year’s recipient of the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center Distinguished Alumna Award. For the UVA alum, family played a significant role in getting her where she is today. She credits her upbringing with giving her an unshakeable confidence, saying that her parents never indicated that there was anything a woman couldn’t do on account of her gender. And if her impressive resume, which showcases one insuperable achievement after the other is any indication, she has taken that advice to heart.
“I am very aware of my special role as a “first woman” – and it’s a responsibility I take quite seriously,” says Garrett. “I see it as an opportunity to emphasize that these roles are not gendered.”
Garrett, a 1988 graduate of UVA’s law school, will join the ranks of female alumna recognized for their achievements as pioneers in a wide range of fields, from athletics to civil rights. Dean Paul Mahoney, who nominated Garrett for this award, commended her establishment as a leading voice in higher education despite her short time in office at Cornell.
“She has been influential and successful in every endeavor—as a public servant, a professor, and an academic administrator,” says Mahoney.
Her latest endeavor, president of Cornell, is preceded by a long list of notable accomplishments. Garrett is no stranger to the role of “first woman”, having served as the first female provost of the University of Southern California. Prior to that, she held professorships at various law schools and was tax and budget counsel to Senator David Boren.
Garrett began her legal career at UVA, which she recognizes for its role in her professional development. It was after the suggestion of a professor that she clerk for a judge that she landed a clerkship with Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, and the wide range of “interesting jobs” she has since held reflect the challenge encouraged by her professors to expand her focus beyond conventional law practice.
It is this message of open-mindedness and confidence in one’s ability that she wants to pass on to young women working towards careers in male-dominated fields.
“One message I always try to impart is that confidence, self-assurance, and the willingness to take on people who are wrong or biased is an important part of success,” says Garrett. “Fortune assists the daring,” indeed.
Acknowledging that year one of her presidency is too early to discuss legacies, Garrett plans nonetheless to utilize this self-assurance and willingness to tackle the impossible to make a series of improvements to the University.
In keeping with her primary goal of strengthening Cornell in its research, education, and global impact, Garrett has highlighted three things on her agenda to focus on in the coming years. By eliminating traditional academic silos via extensive interdisciplinary collaborations, strengthening the faculty (“they are the heart of the university, as teachers, thought leaders, and producers of groundbreaking research,” stresses Garrett), and ameliorating the academic experience of students, Garrett hopes to foster globally competent graduates while facing the challenge of keeping the University affordable to all people.
No small feat, but if anyone can do it, it’s Garrett, who plans on taking a resolute approach to the tasks at hand.
“While I think listening and getting diverse views – and being open to them–is important, so is making a decision,” argues Garrett. “Too often in higher education, we let conversations go on forever, and we don’t make a decision.”
In the meantime she will continue to be a pioneer in her field, serving as both a leader to her University community and an inspiration to students –female and male alike. She will visit UVA on April 29, where she will receive the Distinguished Alumna Award and offer a keynote address discussing leadership in higher education.
Through all this, Garrett keeps her family motto at heart.
“I can’t predict what my legacy as president will ultimately be, but I intend to be true to that motto, while always keeping academic values, and academic excellence, at the fore,” she concludes.