Ezra’s Oracle welcomes inquiries from members of the Cornell community about anything and everything related to the University. We seek out answers to campus mysteries, research rumors, and investigate issues of relevance to Cornellians. Questions can be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why is there a purple piano on Dryden Road in Collegetown?
— Rachmaninoff ’14
From the 1950s until at least the mid-1980s, 228 Dryden Road was home to a piano technician and retailer named Dick Flight ‘47, MA ‘49. An accomplished musician, Flight’s bands often provided entertainment for campus events while he was a student and alumnus. The shop served the Ithaca community’s piano and organ needs for decades. Flight passed away in 1999.
Does Cornell have any good ghost stories?
– Ghost Hunter ’14
With nearly 150 years of sleep-deprived over-stressed students, there are bound to be a few overactive imaginations and ghostly sightings. Some campus buildings are allegedly haunted, but none of the poltergeists seem to make very regular appearances. A shadowy figure, perhaps Jennie McGraw, has sometimes been spotted amongst the bells at the top of the clock tower. McGraw died of tuberculosis in 1881 and is interred in Sage Chapel. In 1967, 8 students and 1 professor died in a tragic fire at the Cornell Residential Club (now Ecology House). Some say strange sounds can still be heard there, including the ghostly barking of a dog that died in the fire. Risley Hall has also been the location of mysterious flickering lights and noises, blamed on the ghost of “Auntie Pru” Prudence Risley. In 2004, the manager of custodial services in Statler Hall said in an interview that a pale lady, believed to be Alice Statler, was frequently seen walking through walls in the Hotel School. One custodian allegedly quit his job out of fear.
Know of other campus ghost stories? Send them to email@example.com.
Why are we Cornell University and not White University?
– Andrew’s Biggest Fan ’12
Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, is credited as a co-founder of the university, but his name doesn’t appear on the diplomas. According to White himself, Ezra Cornell didn’t want to use his own name. “I never knew a man more free from self-seeking and ambition for distinction than the man whose name the university bears.” White said that Ezra “would have called it the ‘State College’ or the ‘Central University’ or something of the kind.” But White insisted that Ezra lend his name to the institution, “in accordance with time-honored American usage, as shown by the names of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, Williams, and the like.” After all, it was Ezra Cornell who pledged $500,000 at Cornell’s founding, which would be around $7.4 million adjusted for inflation.
Did Ezra Cornell own slaves?
– Antebellum Abolitionist ’13
This rumor shows up occasionally, and a new book has recently been published discussing the historic connections between universities and slavery, titled Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Unlike Cornell’s much older Ivy League peers, our alma mater didn’t open its doors until 1868, after the Thirteenth Amendment and abolition of slavery in the United States. Ezra Cornell himself was vehemently anti-slavery. In letters, Ezra described the south as “cursed with human slavery.” When the Republican Party was formed by anti-slavery activists in the 1850s, Ezra was quick to identify with the new political party and was a delegate to the first national Republican convention. He campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and attended his 1861 inauguration.
A. D. White invited notable abolitionists like Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass to lecture at the University of Michigan, where White taught until 1863. In 1870, White acquired for Cornell an extensive collection of slavery and abolitionist materials collected by Reverend Samuel Joseph May. The May Anti-Slavery Collection in the Cornell Library includes over 10,000 pamphlets, newsletters, sermons, broadsides, and other materials documenting the anti-slavery struggle at local and national levels. Much of the collection is digitized and available online.
How much have Cornell’s administrative costs grown in the past few decades in relation to other costs?
– Budget Director ’15
While it’s a little out-of-date at this point, there’s an excellent report available online titled “The Economics of Higher Education,” which was part of Cornell’s 2004-2005 Financial Plan. Authored by retired budget director Michael L. Whalen ’69, the report includes a graph of major expenditures from 1971 to 2003. During that period, employee costs decreased slightly as a ratio of overall operating costs (under 60%); equipment, supplies, and debt costs stayed fairly constant (over 30%); and student financial aid costs increased (over 10%). A 1957 article in The Cornell Daily Sun identifies “general administrative costs” as 5% of expenditures, while the 2002-2003 Financial Plan lists “administrative & support costs” at 7.5%. After the financial collapse in 2008, Cornell instituted an Administrative Streamlining Program with the goal of reducing operating costs by an estimated $75-$85 million annually by fiscal year 2015.
Curious about Cornelliana? Looking for Cornell lore behind a legend? Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Ezra’s Oracle appears alternate Fridays this semester.
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