Garrett was born in Oklahoma City on June 30, 1963 to Robert and Jane Garrett. According to her mother, Garrett began to read very early and thereafter was never seen without a book in her hand. At age 3, according to Jane, young Garrett announced she would be a lawyer—Garrett, more modestly, claimed she was 5. Her father, Robert, had earned a law degree, though he worked as president of a savings and loan. An uncle and grandfather were also lawyers.
Garrett grew up in a family of doers, not mere talkers. Jane’s great-grandfather was the first to open a school in the Choctaw Reservation town of Lehigh, Oklahoma. Her parents taught her and her sister Laura that when they finished a task, they should start on something else.
One of Garrett's hobbies was cross-stitching. In her USC office, Garrett covered her walls in cross-stitched state mottos and landscapes of Jerusalem, Chicago, and the Netherlands. She would send cross-stitched works to her family and friends. Her college friend, Mike Bresson said he remembered traveling through Italy with Garrett and a group of others, and while everyone else slept, she cross-stitched, never to waste a moment.
During her tenure at the University of Chicago Law School, Garrett started dating Israeli legal philosopher, Andrei Marmor, and they got married soon after. Matthew Spitzer, dean of USC Gould School of Law at the time, coincidentally attempted to recruit both Garett and Marmor independently to come to USC before they met. Soon after they decided to get married, Garrett and Marmor accepted USC’s offers. She and her husband enjoyed traveling together, and most recently visited Cambodia, Vietnam, and Italy before her death in 2016.
Garrett earned her Bachelor of Arts in history with special distinction from the University of Oklahoma in 1985. In a 2004 interview, David Levy, Garrett’s favorite history professor at the University of Oklahoma, said that Garrett would finish the weekly quiz ahead of the other students and, in the same motion, turn over the paper and reach for next week’s reading. Levy also said of Garrett that he "never had a student who made better use of time." As a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, Garrett became chair of student congress, the University of Oklahoma Student Government Association, a position she held until she graduated.
In 1988, she received her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law.
After law school, Garrett clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and for Judge Stephen F. Williams on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She also served as a legal advisor at the Iran–United States Claims Tribunal at The Hague and as legislative director and tax and budget counsel for Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma. Boren said about Garrett, "If I were to count on the fingers of one hand the people I’ve known with the most remarkable intellect, she would be on that list."University of Chicago Law School Graduating Students’ Award for Teaching Excellence (1997)
Crain’s Chicago Business “40 Under 40” Award for Most Influential Young Chicagoans (2000)
Outstanding Teaching Award from the Latter-Day Saint Student Association (2006)
Distinguished Alumna of the College of Arts and Sciences (Social Sciences), University of Oklahoma (2007)
Association of Trojan Leagues Outstanding Service Award (2008)
Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society
Life Fellow, American Bar Foundation
Harold Lasswell Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (inducted 2013) Member, American Law Institute
Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, University of Oklahoma (2015)
University of Virginia’s 2016 Distinguished Alumna Award
Garrett's primary scholarly interests included legislative process, the initiative and referendum process and the federal budget process. Among her prolific writings, she was co-author of the preeminent case book on legislation and statutory interpretation, Cases and Materials on Legislation and Regulation: Statutes and the Creation of Public Policy (2014). She was also co-editor of Fiscal Challenges: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Budget Policy and Statutory Interpretation Stories. Her interdisciplinary scholarship used insights from economics and political science to understand how to design democratic institutions to ensure outcomes more consistent with citizen preferences—and how those preferences might be shaped by the political and legal environments.
Garrett was a professor of law at the University of Chicago from 1995 to 1999 and also served as deputy dean for academic affairs. She also taught as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Virginia Law School, Central European University in Budapest, and the Interdisciplinary Center Law School in Israel.
Garrett began her tenure at the University of Southern California in 2003 as the Frances R. and John J. Duggan Professor of Law and Vice Provost. Between 2010 and 2015, Garrett served as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, USC’s second-ranking officer. As provost, she proved a superb administrator with a complex portfolio. In addition to serving as a professor in the USC Gould School of Law, Garrett oversaw the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, as well as the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She also hired Provost Professors and founded the Provost's Postdoctoral Scholars Program in the Humanities. Over the course of two years, Garrett formed The USC Strategic Vision: Matching Deeds to Ambitions, which the Board of Trustees accepted in December 2011.
On September 30, 2014, Cornell University's Board of Trustees unanimously elected Garrett as the 13th president of Cornell University. The university's search for a president began when incumbent president David J. Skorton announced in March 2014 that he would be leaving Cornell on June 30, 2015, to become the next secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. She was selected after a six-month search in which some two hundred candidates were considered. Garrett was the first woman selected to lead Cornell University.
Garrett's inauguration ceremony was held on September 18, 2015 on the Arts Quadrangle of Cornell University. She delivered her inaugural address in front of the iconic statue of Ezra Cornell. She spoke of "the spirit of Cornell that frames our journey" and stressed the importance of the faculty as the foundation of the university; students as partners in the voyage of discovery; and the university’s growing presence in New York City as a source of opportunity. Garrett said that the recruitment, development and retention of the best faculty remained Cornell University's paramount priorities. She also spoke of focusing on the residential undergraduate experience, defining as a community the shared intellectual experience all Cornell students should encounter. And she pointed to the opportunities inherent in the university’s dual footprint, in Ithaca and New York City, urging all of Cornell’s colleges to connect with Cornell Tech in new collaborations.
Following the ceremony, the university hosted a picnic on the Agriculture Quadrangle, inviting Ithaca citizens as well as the campus community. The Cornell Dairy prepared 450 gallons of its newest ice cream flavor, 24 Garrett Swirl. Later in the day, Garett moderated a panel on democracy and inequality in Bailey Hall, bringing together eminent faculty to explore how inequality interacts with immigration, access to education and health care, job creation and economic opportunity.
Although she served as Cornell’s president for 7 months, Garrett was popular with students and actively involved in campus issues, working to ameliorate housing problems for graduate students, approving the opening of Anabel’s Grocery store, rearranging administrative leadership and defending freedom of speech on campus.
Several of Garrett’s decisions also sparked controversy, including her reversal of President Emeritus David Skorton’s 2035 carbon neutrality goal and the January 2016 decision to form the College of Business. Many members of the Cornell community, including students, faculty and alumni, criticized Garrett’s decisions and the lack of transparency in the administration's decision-making.
Garrett also emphasized the importance of supporting every Cornell constituency and often expressed her support for students and faculty. At her State of the University address on October 23, 2015, Garrett said that Cornell University "students are simply amazing." She also said that it is important to provide ample support for students so that they can both contribute to and gain from their academic experience.
In 2005, U.S. President George W. Bush appointed Garrett to serve on the nine-member bipartisan President's Advisory Panel for Federal Tax Reform. Its report was issued later in that same year.
On March 30, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Garrett to be Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Policy in the Department of Treasury. Garrett withdrew her nomination on May 29, 2009, citing "aspects of my personal family situation."
From 2009 to 2014, she served on the California Fair Political Practices Commission. She also served as director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics. Garrett also served on the boards of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at USC and on the Internet2 Board of Directors.
Garrett died on March 6, 2016 from colon cancer at her New York City home at the age of 52. She was the first Cornell president to die while in office. Garrett first shared her cancer diagnosis with the Cornell University community February 8, 2016 in a statement. She underwent surgery February 19, 2016 and officially delegated the duties and powers of the presidency to Provost Michael Kotlikoff, as provided by the Cornell University Bylaws. On February 22, 2016, Acting President Michael Kotlikoff announced that she had been released from the Intensive Care Unit and would continue treatment under the care of doctors at Weill Cornell Medicine.
The Cornell community gathered across campus in the late afternoon of March 7, 2016 to pay their respects to Garrett. More than a thousand university leaders, students, faculty, staff and local community members met on the Cornell Arts Quadrangle, the same ground that fewer than six months earlier saw the celebration of Garrett’s inauguration.
On the evening of March 8, 2016, hundreds of students gathered in front of Willard Straight Hall to honor Garrett with a candlelight vigil. Several speakers shared their memories of Garrett and how she had influenced them. Before and after the vigil, students signed a card for Garrett’s family.
Before her untimely death, Garrett expressed her desire to create a fund at Weill Cornell Medicine to advance research in colon cancer. On March 8, 2016, Dr. Laurie Glimcher, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine, announced the launch of the President Elizabeth Garrett Fund for Colon Cancer Research.
A memorial gathering was held in Bailey Hall on March 17, 2016.
Garrett is survived by her husband, Andrei Marmor, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Philosophy and Law at Cornell University; her parents, Robert and Jane Garrett; and a sister, Laura Garrett.