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Sad but grateful ... knowing Beth Garrett

Beth Garrett, President of Cornell University, died last week.  

Being President of Cornell, a great university with a passionate sense of curiosity as boundless as hers, was the latest in the string of amazing things that she did in her professional life.

I met Beth when I started my clerkship for Justice Thurgood Marshall. She was ending hers, and for a couple of weeks of overlap she helped me to try to make sense of what the job would entail.  

For sure she imparted some useful "how to's."

But the most important thing she conveyed was her attitude: her happy determination to figure out whatever novel, complex thing had to be understood to do the job right; her unself-conscious confidence that she could; and her excitement over the opportunity to do so.

The lesson continued when we were "baby professors" starting out at the University of Chicago Law School.  Those same virtues -- the resolve to figure out whatever it was she didn't already know but needed to in order to make sense of something that perplexed her; the same confidence that she could learn whatever she had to to do that; and the same pleasure at the prospect of undertaking such a task -- characterized her style as a scholar.

These same atttributes contributed, of course, to her success in mastering the new challenges she took on thereafter in her career as a university administrator, first as Provost at the University of Southern California and then as President of Cornell. 

But those opportunities also came her way because of all the other excellent qualities of character she possessed.  Among these was her incisive apprehension of how scholarly communities could become the very best versions of themselves, and her capacity to inspire their members to reciprocate the efforts she tirelessly (but always happily, cheerfully!) made to helping them realize that aspiration.

Every person who was fortunate enough to have had some connection to Beth must now endure a disorienting sense of sadness and shock, bewilderment and resentment, at her premature death.

But after the grief retires to its proper place in the registry of their emotional-life experiences, every one of those persons will enjoy for the rest of their lives the benefit of being able to summon the inspiring and joyful example of Beth Garrett and using their memories of her to help guide and motivate them to be the best versions of themselves.

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Reader Comments (3)

But the most important thing she conveyed was her attitude: her happy determination to figure out whatever novel, complex thing had to be understood to do the job right; her unself-conscious confidence that she could; and her excitement over the opportunity to do so.

Yeah, this; a thousand times this. Anyone who's had a colleague like this knows how unsubstitutible these strengths of character are. We treasure those who inspire us to bring out the best in ourselves.

March 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

Very sorry to hear of your friend. She sounds like a natural wonder.

Incidentally, what a grand in original career you've been having to date. Reminds me how generous you are to crank out such a stream of interesting work, and engage so with the likes of us, your blog readers.

March 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHal Morris

I posted the following at

I was not in a position to know President Garrett at all well, but I was fortunate to be touched by her intelligence and humanity enough to miss her as a person as well as a leader. On July 1, 2015, I received an email announcement about President Garrett's first day on the job. I somewhat spontaneously sent a short note of welcome to Ithaca and Cornell, addressed to To my very great surprise, the next day I received a friendly, brief response from "Elizabeth Garrett". The President expressed her interest in getting to know Centers and Institutes like the one I work in at a future date, inasmuch as we were part of "the rich complexity of Cornell." A week or so later, I happened to be seated at a lunch table adjacent to that at which the President and former President Rhodes were eating. Brief introductions ensued. I was inspired by the personal contact to look up some of her published journal articles online. The next time I found occasion to send her a short note, reacting to some of her published comments about the University's land grant mission, I received a friendly note of thanks from "Beth". I never talked to her again in person, but did have several additional opportunities to correspond by email. Every response from her was simultaneously thoughtful, responsive, and efficient. The last time I sent her a note was shortly after her cancer diagnosis was made public. Again much to my surprise, she responded: "I have much to be grateful for..." I am grateful to have gotten a glimpse of her as a person, as well as a leader and an intellect. I mourn her passing.

March 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Kay

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