Portrait of Cora Marrett sitting in her home
Photo: Paulius Musteikis

In the spring of 1979, two weeks after the devastating meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant in Pennsylvania, Cora Marrett (PhD, Sociology, ’68) got a call from the White House. The personnel office asked her to join a multidisciplinary commission then-President Jimmy Carter was putting together to recommend meaningful responses to the catastrophe.

Marrett, who at the time was a professor in UW-Madison’s Departments of Sociology and Afro-American Studies, initially said no.

“I had assumed it would focus very heavily on nuclear engineering and nuclear medicine,” says Marrett, who has been a member of the College of Letters & Science’s Board of Visitors for several years. “When I learned that it would be headed by a mathematician, that there were to be engineers, a housewife and a journalist, I thought, ‘Well, now, this is interesting.’”

Marrett received a personal “thank you” from President Jimmy Carter for her service on the Three Mile Island Commission. Photo: Paulius Musteikis

Marrett’s time on the commission ended up being one of the defining experiences of an expansive 50-year career that also includes stints in leadership positions at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Academy of Science and more than 30 years in the Department of Sociology here. The Three Mile Island Commission produced important findings, but Marrett’s biggest takeaway was the power and value of interacting with, and learning from, others.

It’s a lesson Marrett, who grew up as the youngest in a family of 12 children in a tiny tobacco town in Virginia, has applied throughout her time in academia and with government agencies. Her story is a winding journey of discovery sparked by curiosity and powered by dedication to public service.

“I’ve always wanted to give people a sense that one’s career path doesn’t have to be that clear,” says Marrett. “I’ve valued the stops and starts, because not everything works out as you might have wanted it to.”

I’ve always wanted to give people a sense that one’s career path doesn’t have to be that clear. I’ve valued the stops and starts, because not everything works out as you might have wanted it to.

Cora Marrett

Marrett began in academia. During an early teaching stint at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1970s, she became part of a government-based project to identify the factors that fueled housing segregation. Her paper outlining the causes of social stratification sparked national discussion on the topic.

It was also her first project tied to the National Research Council (NRC), a part of the National Academy of Sciences, an organization Marrett would serve extensively later in her career. She calls the NRC “the place that started bringing together my great interest in service.”

The connections Marrett made on the Three Mile Island Commission in 1979 opened a host of opportunities for her—including serving on the Board of Governors for the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. She spent six years there in various leadership positions, gaining experience with federal budgets and bureaucracy, administration, and staffing decisions.

“What it showed me were the kinds of people and activities you’ve got to interact with, and the need to develop a greater sense of being comfortable in those kinds of settings,” she says.

Throughout her public agency work, Marrett always maintained ties to academia. She served her first stint at NSF while on leave from UW-Madison.

The experience gained in one realm did not always carry immediate weight in the other. Marrett recalls interviewing to become provost at the University of Massachusetts, the job she held before returning to Wisconsin to become the vice president of academic affairs for UW System in 2001.

“The hiring committee said, ‘How in the world do you think you could be an academic administrator? You’ve never even been the chair of a department,’” Marrett says. “That got my back up a bit.”

Marrett was granted emerita status at UW in 2011, but any actual sense of “retirement” is illusory. Joe Biden recently named her to the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science. In addition to her work with the L&S Board of Visitors, in recent years, she has also taught a course on the modern meaning of the Wisconsin Idea. That course attracted students from different walks of life. That, as always, remains her driving force.

“I cannot overstate the importance of the lessons I learned from others and the connections I have made with others,” she says. “That still continues to be important for my life.”

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