Skip to main content


Cornell continues its transformational journey

Robert S. Harrison with Elizabeth Garrett in 2014

Robert S. Harrison, chairman of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, applauds then President-elect Elizabeth Garrett as she speaks to trustees during a visit to campus in September 2014.

Elizabeth Garrett was the quintessential Cornellian – for devoting her life both to the pursuit of knowledge and to public service. When she accepted my offer to become Cornell's 13th president, she was instantly, immensely and visibly proud to immerse herself in all things Cornell. She wanted to become the personification of this great university.

Beth connected with me from the moment I met her during the presidential search in 2014. She had me at "hello." I knew from our first meeting that she was the perfect leader for this moment in Cornell's history.

The institution Beth inherited had been shaped by traditions and achievements, but also by an adamant refusal to sit still and accept the status quo. She understood that dynamic change and transformation built the Cornell we cherish, at least as much as tradition. Since its founding 150 years ago as a revolutionary, democratic, anti-elitist and fundamentally American institution, the activities that have taken place on the Ithaca campus have had lasting consequences for the rest of higher education. With the addition of a large New York City footprint, Beth understood the potential for Cornell to impact the rest of the world even more.

Beth had the energy, intelligence, drive and passion to launch Cornell's next chapter. Among the great challenges facing higher education today, Beth saw even greater opportunities for Cornell to lead on the global stage. As Cornell's first female president, she became a historic and inspirational figure – reinforcing the openness and inclusion that is Cornell.

For many of us, Beth redefined personal bravery. In the face of an advanced-stage cancer diagnosis, Beth refused to surrender or allow the disease to limit her. Her passion to advance Cornell's success drove her forward. She had no moments to squander, and she lived each day during treatment as if she would be returning to the president's office in Day Hall the next day.

Through her actions, Beth helped create the next chapter of Ezra Cornell's and Andrew Dickson White's vision for this institution. Beth moved us forward in our aspirations for an even more expansive global presence. She insisted that we reorganize our business programs to propel them into the top tier of competitors. She challenged us to look to the faculty to define the university's spirit, holding fast to principles of academic excellence and academic freedom.

As Cornellians, we must rise to Beth's challenges. Inspired by those who came before us, we listen and learn, synthesize and act – to better ourselves, this great institution and the larger world. Our goal and Beth's goal has always been to spread our revolutionary ideas far beyond Cayuga's waters.

Beth's life ended far too soon – tragically early – but her vision for Cornell will endure. We are forever changed, inspired and motivated to continue to move forward and positively impact the world.

Robert S. Harrison '76 is chairman of the Cornell University Board of Trustees.

Back to top