The University’s Charter Day weekend celebration — an expansive three days centered around the Festival of Ideas and Imagination — came to a conclusion with the official Charter Day Ceremony in Barton Hall Monday.
The ceremony brought together major University figures, from faculty to the Board of Trustees to the University Archivist, who marched in academic dress gowns along a plush red carpet to their seats in the opening procession.
University Marshall and Prof. Emeritus Charles Walcott, neurobiology and behavior, stately led the procession while Vice Provost Judith Appleton — holding the silver-ribbed University Mace with white gloves — and President David Skorton was last in the procession.
Descendant of founder Ezra Cornell, Ezra Cornell IV ’70 carried the framed University Charter, proudly raising it above his head as he walked to his seat. He placed it on a stand in the middle of the Barton Hall stage, where it stood in the background of the speakers throughout the rest of the ceremony.
As the last of the faculty took their seats, the sound of clock tower chimes signaled the debut of the Sesquicentennial video, entitled “Glorious to View.” Produced by Micah Cormier in University Communications, the video played on two massive screens on either side the stage.
Featuring aerial shots of Cornell’s Ithaca, New York City and Qatar campuses, the video celebrated numerous facets of the Cornell experience from the intellectual vibrancy of campus to the strength of the faculty body to the growing opportunities for internationalism, ultimately culminating in birthday messages from the students, alumni and faculty featured in the video.
Several of Cornellians who spoke in the video included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54, Nobel laureate Prof. Emeritus Roald Hoffmann, chemistry, and renowned English professor M.H. Abrams, who died earlier last week.
A common theme of the video was Cornell’s “elite and egalitarian” mission and throughout the rest of the ceremony, this theme was echoed in the speeches that followed the video.
“The sense of excellence but also of ‘we accept the common person, we’re a space where everyone can belong,’ that was true right from the beginning,” Thomas Jones ’69, M.R.P. ’72, former CEO of Citigroup, said in the video.
Maintaining focus on the University’s charter, which was never more than several feet away from the speakers, Board of Trustees chair Robert Harrison ’76 said, “Exactly 150 years ago today, Cornell University’s charter was signed into law by Governor Reuben Fenton, giving birth to a truly revolutionary American institution. This morning we commemorate that day.”
He continued by emphasizing the importance of the day’s occasion, saying that despite Cornell’s relative short history in comparison to its peer institutions, the University had, in its time, definitively shaped the course of higher education.
“Every day we confront ordinary things described with superlatives like incredible or transformative, we characterize everyday phenomena as game-changing, disruptive or revolutionary,” Harrison said. “Overuse threatens to diminish their meaning on occasions like this, but I would, without exaggeration, use every one of those terms in describing this very young University.”
Additionally, Harrison said that “freedom and responsibility” had been the guiding forces in helping the University achieve its founding motto of “any person, any study.”
University Archivist Elaine Engst M.A. ’72 followed Harrison’s address by telling the story of the founding of Cornell University and explaining the messages within the University charter.
“Having established the legal and financial base of the University, the charter also provided the blueprint for the radical educational experiment that would become Cornell University,” she said.
The charter, Engst also said, was important due to its commitment to the creation of a non-denominational university that provided opportunities for women, despite the controversial nature of this stance at the time of the charter’s signing.
“Two year later [after 1862], Ezra Cornell would write to his four-year-old granddaughter, ‘I want you to keep this letter until you grow up to be a woman and want to go to a good school, where you can have a good opportunity to learn so you can show it to the president and the faculty of the University to let them know that it is the wish of your grandpa that girls as well as boys should be educated at the Cornell University,’” Engst said.
Re-emphasizing the revolutionary nature of Cornell’s charter at the time of its signing, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.), who spoke after Engst, said that when New York’s state governor was invited to speak to Cornell’s first graduating class, he decided to send his lieutenant governor in his stead, fearing the disapproval of University critics.
Hochul’s address also reminded that the signing of the University’s charter came at a precarious time in American history, following the end of a civil war and the assassination of the president. Despite doubts and anxieties present at the time, she said it was with great success that the nation, the state and the University had endured till today.
Continuing the story of Cornell’s history, chair of the sesquicentennial steering committee Prof. Glenn Altschuler Ph.D. ’76 and Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government, recounted more of Cornell’s history, bringing the narrative to where the University stood today.
Skorton, who spoke last, continued the story of Cornell by describing how the University had evolved with its mission, referencing Cornell New York City Tech campus, massive open online courses and the Engaged Cornell initiative.
“We have continued to add new areas of inquiry, scholarship and creative endeavour and to adjust the curriculum as our students require and the times demand,” Skorton said.
In the final act of the celebratory, orchestrated ceremony, President-Elect Elizabeth Garrett joined Skorton, Harrison and the charter on stage to sing the alma mater. The Symphony Orchestra, Glee Club and Chorus united with the crowd of standing faculty, alumni and students in signing the well-known verses, “Hail to thee our Alma Mater! Hail, all hail, Cornell!”
The closing recessional of professors returning to their offices, of Glee Club and Chorus students returning to classes, of the trustees leaving quietly ended the ceremony and the weekend’s celebrations.