Portrait of a presidency

by Blake Rasmussen ’05

In 1997 Dennis Damon Moore was celebrating 10 years as the chief academic officer of Cornell College. To commemorate this milestone, President Leslie H. Garner Jr., who had only been at Cornell for about three years, took to his wood shop. There he used wood left over from the recent renovation of Law Hall and shaped an old-fashioned springwound clock for Moore.

“It is a beautiful object that keeps very good time,” said Moore of the gift. “It should continue to remain so for many years to come.”

“This,” he added, “is the story of Les Garner’s presidency at Cornell College.”

Garner’s 15-year presidency has been a study in maintaining the best of the old while innovating and improving the college. There’s hardly a corner of campus that hasn’t been shaped, shined, and polished by the North Carolina native.

“It’s not the same college at all that he came into,” said Garner’s long-time assistant Brinda Caldwell.

Indeed, Cornell has undergone astounding change in just 15 short years. A larger faculty, new and innovative academic programs, stronger student life and admission programs, improved alumni relations, a larger endowment, and, of course, a plethora of new building and renovation projects have all marked the Garner presidency to date.

"He had an ideal background, he had the experience, a great academic background, the personality, and a great fit.”

– Robert Slater ’60

After the previous president David Marker gave notice in March 1993 of his resignation, the college created a search committee headed by Trustee Sherry Strong and composed of trustees, faculty, students, alumni, and others. After an initial search resulted in no hire by the February 1994 board meeting, Robert Slater ’60, a search committee member and coincidentally one of the top executive recruiters in the country, mapped out a route that not only found a strong fit for the college in Garner, but found him in less than four months.

In May, the Board of Trustees voted unanimously for Garner, who at that time was the president of North Carolina Wesleyan College. He was the first sitting president ever to make the move to Cornell.

Garner and wife Katrina made an immediate impression.

“I was sort of starstruck from the first time I met Les and Katrina,” said Sue Astley, a psychology professor who, along with Slater and Tom Jarom ’66, traveled to meet the future president in North Carolina as part of the search.

Many felt that they were getting a package deal with the Garners.

“We felt like we had a home run with Les by himself,” said Jarom. “But with Katrina it was a grand slam.” (More on Katrina Garner.)

On the day Garner was inaugurated, Jarom overheard two faculty members talking as everyone gathered outside Old Sem for the procession to King Chapel. They had just spotted Garner in his crimson robe representing his Ph.D. from Harvard.

As Jarom recalls it, one faculty member leaned over to the other and said, simply, “Les Garner is what a college president should look like.”

"A president never stops worrying.”

– Les Garner

“There was so much to be done,” said Joan Claar, former vice president and dean of students, of Garner’s first years.

Garner stepped into a college that, in his words, had a lot going for it, but faced several challenges. For example, among Garner’s first acts was to institute a wage freeze, a necessity given the financial state of the college.

“This is not the way that a president would like to come into a college,” said Moore. However, he added, Garner’s openness with the faculty and staff, and insistence that the freeze would be reversed when possible, led to an atmosphere of trust between the college and its new president.

Garner also needed to make several key hires. Claar was the first, and started the same day Garner took office.

Terry Gibson ’59 was next, filling out the President’s Council in the summer of 1995. Gibson said he and Garner met and instantly hit it off. “Les was the reason I came back,” he said.

The final addition to the Garner puzzle was Caldwell, who took over as assistant to the president in 1995. She’s been in that position ever since.

That first year also brought with it challenges of retention, the student experience, and changing demographics, all of which Garner took in stride.

“As he became part of the institution, he had more confidence in what needed to be done and how to do it,” said Claar. But when asked how long it took him to settle in, Claar answered, “About a day and a half. There was no choice.”

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