Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell University’s president, died March 6.  (Courtesy of Cornell)

Cornell University President Elizabeth Garrett, the first woman to lead the Ivy League school in upstate New York, died Sunday of cancer less than a year after starting in the position, the university announced. She was 52.

Garrett had been undergoing treatment for colon cancer. She disclosed the diagnosis to the campus community on Feb. 8.

“There are few words to express the enormity of this loss,” Robert S. Harrison, chairman of Cornell’s board of trustees, said in a statement Monday. “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.”

Garrett came to Cornell after serving as provost at the University of Southern California. Cornell’s 13th president, she was one of four women at the helm of the eight Ivy League schools. The other three are Christina H. Paxson of Brown University (who took office in 2012), Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard University (2007) and Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania (2004).

Michael Kotlikoff, who had been Cornell’s provost, was named acting president of the 21,000-student university in Ithaca last month as Garrett was being treated for her illness.

Garrett also was a trailblazer at USC as the first female provost at the private university in Los Angeles.

“There are more of us in the pipeline to take on these jobs as leaders,” Garrett told The Washington Post in January 2015. In that interview, Garrett recalled that when she was in law school at the University of Virginia in the 1980s, she had to make a point of hunting for a class taught by a female professor. Now, she said, there are far more women on the law faculty at U-Va. and elsewhere. Women also are making progress, at various rates, in other disciplines.

“It certainly is not a battle that has been won,” Garrett told The Post. “But it is a battle that we’re winning.”

Garrett was named to the Cornell presidency in September 2014 and took over in July 2015, succeeding David J. Skorton, who is now secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. She was a legal scholar and expert on presidential politics, tax policy and the legislative process. She clerked for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Harrison, in his statement, called Garrett “the quintessential Cornellian.”

“From the moment I met her during the presidential search, it was clear to me that she had the intellect, energy and vision not only to lead Cornell, but to be one of the greatest presidents in our 150-year history,” Harrison said. “While Beth’s tenure as president has tragically been cut short, her efforts over the last eight months have set the university on a path toward continued excellence. She will leave a lasting legacy on our beloved institution and will be terribly missed.”

Cornell said Garrett was the university’s first president to die in office.

Garrett is survived by her husband, Andrei Marmor, a professor of philosophy and law at Cornell, and two step-daughters.

Here is a link to a university article about her.


Cornell University’s Ithaca campus. (Courtesy of Cornell University Photography )