ITHACA, N.Y. — Elizabeth Garrett was inaugurated as Cornell’s 13th president in a ceremony on campus held Friday morning.
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Garrett, introduced by the university’s Board of Trustees chair, gave a speech interspersed with quotes from C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka.”
In her speech, the new Cornell president — the first-ever woman to hold the post — praised the “radical” vision of the university’s original founders, stressed the centrality of its faculty, and spoke of some of the challenges and opportunities for higher education. She also gave a direct challenge to all of the university’s many branches to seek ways to integrate their missions with Cornell’s new campus in New York City.
Below are seven of my favorite quotes from the speech, which can be seen in full here.
1 — On Ithaca and the ‘Cornell spirit’
EG: “Ithaca is not only a place that profoundly affects those who spend time on this campus … But Ithaca, Cornell, is also a state of mind, both a beginning and a destination for a journey characterized by a rare excitement that stirs the spirit, body and intellect.”
“The Cornell spirit emanates from Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White … The collaboration of the spirit of Cornell and White, two rebels against convention, created a university dedicated to the liberal arts while simultaneously affirming the imperative to create useful applications for research and creative work.”
“We expect more of Cornell. Cornell, in order to be conservative in the sense of being true to its traditions, must be radical and progressive — for that is the way that it started.”
2 — On why the faculty form the core of Cornell
EG: “When AD White began to implement his plan for Cornell University, his highest priority was hiring faculty. ‘Better a splendid and complete faculty in a barn,’ he said, ‘than insufficient faculty in a palace.’”
“It is the faculty who attract the finest students and inspire them to embark on their own adventures of knowledge; it is the faculty who seek to discover new knowledge and move us forward in the search for truth.”
3 — On the faculty’s key responsibility
EG: “Related to the freedoms we enjoy, faculty have many responsibilities — to each other, to junior colleagues, to the institution, to the staff who work alongside us. But none are more important than our responsibility to our students — to send them off on their own journeys to learn and go on learning as they set sail to distant and unknown harbors.”
“…We seek to develop in our students a resilience, to face an exciting and unknown future and an appreciation for the life of the mind and a commitment to reason and rationality as the tools with which we approach today’s problems, while preserving an appreciation for the arts and humanities that help us understand what it means to be human.”
4 — On Ezra Cornell’s motto
EG: “Realistically, no institution can be excellent in any study. The faculty instead must focus our energy and resources strategically. We must critically assess all that we are doing and choose which studies we choose to emphasize in our quest for excellence.”
“We must organize ourselves in ways that ensure our work has the greatest impact, that propel us forward to new applications and allow fruitful collaborations among faculty and students … In this analysis we must be guided by the spirit of ‘Any Study’ by defining our targets with breadth … and by an openness to new understandings of disciplines, collaborations and methods of scholarship.”
5 — On the spuriousness of some higher ed critics
“I realize that higher education in the United States is the subject of great public criticism. Pundits and politicians contend that the cost is too great, the value questionable, the experience not sufficiently valuable, and the opportunity not fully accessible to all who deserve it. Certainly, there is room for improvement in any institution of great durability.
“But it is beyond dispute that a intense, residential undergraduate experience at one of America’s great research universities is one of the very best investments that any families can make. Because of their experience at Cornell, our graduates will have more fulfilling (experiences) on their journeys, they will have brighter economic futures — but, most importantly, they will experience life’s adventures more deeply and with greater satisfaction …”
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“In the face of criticism of higher education generally, we must defend what we know to be true. The educational journey that begins here in Ithaca … is worthwhile and valuable. There is nothing comparable anywhere else in the world. It is why the ambitious of every country aspire to study in an American research university. It is an opportunity that we will continue to make available to students of every walk of life.”
6 — On Cornell’s global footprint
“Cavafy continues to lead us on the journey: ‘May you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things. Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind.’ As we interpret our founding vision for the 21st Century, we do so as an institution that brought the Cornell spirit far beyond this campus.”
“Those can stop at our trading stations around the globe — in Tanzania and Rome; Geneva, New York; in Doha, Qater; in Washington, D.C. and Maine. In every county in New York through our cooperative extension program. Not only are we located in a great college town, but we also have a substantial footprint in an international urban center — a duality that no other leading American research university can claim.”
7 — On embarking on a new journey
(After an extended call for Cornell’s faculty in all fields to seek ways of collaborating with its coming NYC tech campus)
EG: “Our academic community must be bold in our ambition. Our journey of exploration, which emanates from Ithaca and which will always return to Ithaca, will wind through many ports of call — allowing us to learn and teach and discover more than if we had merely stayed safe at home.”
“And so I embark on my journey — a new journey, with you — as the 13th president of this remarkable institution. I am confident we will lead the world in creating new paths to discovery, knowledge and the many ways we can move closer to truth in launching our students on their own voyages.”
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