October 17, 2003

A Brief History of Cornell

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“I am sure,” wrote Deane W. Malott, Cornell’s sixth president in 1951, “[that] it is perfectly possible to have an entirely adequate affair without delegates from all over creation, bored visiting presidents and a general ruckus.”

Malott, though not inclined to have a large ceremony, correctly surmised the need for an inauguration.

“I suspect [the inauguration] is a peg for some rallying of Cornell spirit,” Malott wrote.

Inauguration ceremonies have widely varied in Cornell’s history, from activities on the Slope for Malott to ceremonies at commencement for Dale R. Corson.

“I don’t think they even had a regular guest list,” University archivist Elaine Engst said of early inaugurations.

An exhibit entitled “Legacy of Leadership: Cornell’s Eleven Presidents” showcases artifacts from Cornell’s 11 inaugurations and is on display in Olin, Kroch and Uris Libraries through the end of the semester. Today is also the release date for Carol Kammen’s Cornell: Glorious to View, a history of Cornell.

Despite the unusual scale of Lehman’s inauguration, many of today’s events have been a part of previous ceremonies.

The trip President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 took to the Tompkins County Public Library this morning is a nod to the University’s first inauguration, on October 7, 1868, when Andrew Dickson White was inaugurated in the hall of Ezra Cornell’s gift to Ithaca, the Cornell Library, which was demolished in 1960.

White believed Cornell’s nonsectarian founding, and the opposition of denominational groups, led New York Gov. Reuben E. Fenton to avoid the ceremonies.

“Gov. Fenton was afraid of Methodist and Baptist and other sectarian enemies of the University and levanted the night before — leaving the duty to Lt. Gov. [Stewart L.] Woodford, who discharged the duties admirably,” White wrote.

White received the keys of the University in a casket of carved oak bound with steel as well as the charter and seal. The keys, said by Woodford to symbolize the “temporal estate of the University,” have not survived as part of the ceremony.

“No one knows what happened to the keys,” Engst said.

White recruited many of the University’s professors, served as minister to Prussia and later to Russia, donated his entire library in 1891 and nobly refused the University’s offer to be made a trustee for life upon his resignation in 1885. His inaugural speech laid out the ideals behind Ezra Cornell’s university: to “combine practical with liberal education.”

The chief sponsor of the Morrill Land Act, Justin S. Morrill, attended Cornell’s second inauguration, that of Charles Kendall Adams. The Old Armory, which stood at the current site of the Engineering Quad, was the endpoint of a procession similar to today’s. Over three hours of speeches followed, as Adams outlined the need for expansion. True to his word, Adams’ tenure saw Barnes, Lincoln, Morse and Boardman Halls built, as well as Uris Library.

Jacob Gould Schurman had the longest tenure of any Cornell president, from 1892 to 1920. Like White, Schurman had a diplomatic career, helping to rebuild the University of Heidelberg after the First World War. In his inaugural address, Schurman argued for financial support for the University from the State of New York, noting that in other states “the university is the beneficiary of the state; here the state is the beneficiary of the university.”

Schurman also vowed that the University would keep housing relatively inexpensive and would generally “see to it that Cornell never ceases to be the poor man’s university.”

After Schurman’s detailed attention to concrete issues, Livingston Farrand brought a worldly focus to his 1921 inaugural address. Farrand urged the University to take responsibility in the “life-and-death struggle to save our democratic ideals [from] the destruction of material, mental and moral values by the war and the economic, political and social confusion that has ensued.”

Farrand’s inauguration was also the first at Cornell to have delegates from other institutions. The University of North Carolina, Harvard, Michigan and Stanford Universities represented colleges from the East, South, Midwest and West, according to the program.

Edmund Ezra Day, like presidents White, Adams and Lehman, was once a professor at the University of Michigan. His address harkened back to White’s inaugural speech, noting the need for the University to keep its intellectual and practical blend in turbulent times.

Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations opened in 1945 under Day, and total enrollment leaped from 6,341 to 10,034.

Malott came to Cornell with business and academic experience as a former vice president of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company and chancellor of the University of Kansas. Malott oversaw the biggest period of construction in the University’s history, and the athletic program similarly expanded to become among the largest intercollegiate programs in the nation.

Malott’s 1951 address warned against allowing the system of government to “sink slowly from the free republic of decentralized government, to the welfare state, to the handout state, to the police state.”

Cornell’s ceremonial mace — a crowned javelin-shaped ornament made of silver and gold — also dates back to the Malott era. Malott directed two professors, George Healey and George Hucker, to research the current state of mace-making. Hucker sent letters to the city of Norfolk, Va., the provost of Yale, the Brooklyn Museum and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, among numerous others. After more than a year, a promising lead came from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths’ Hall, London. Cornell then elected to place its faith, and a sizable monetary sum, in Eric Clements, who had never designed a mace. Graham Hughes, the art director for Goldsmiths’ Hall, assured Hucker that a modern design, rather than a copy of antique maces, would best serve as “the embodiment of the whole rambling structure, organization and idea of the university.”

Of the collaborative effort to produce a mace, Hughes said that “it is these little vignettes that foster enduring friendship between our two great countries.”

James A. Perkins’ 1963 inaugural speech argued that a modern university must choose among paths for research, with an eye toward driving societal change rather than being “merely a spinning gear.”

Perkins oversaw the creation of departments of computer science and biology and the establishment of the Society for the Humanities, as well as the Committee on Special Educational Projects, which greatly increased the number of students of color on campus. Perkins resigned following the Straight Takeover.

Dale R. Corson rose from physics professor to president, taking the reins during a tumultuous time for the University. Corson’s tenure saw the completion of the Herbert R. Johnson Museum of Art, as well as the establishment of medieval and women’s studies programs.

According to a memo from Corson’s office, there was no formal inaugural ceremony “due primarily to the problems of the time period in which he moved from being Acting President to President.” Instead, Corson was inaugurated at the commencement ceremonies in 1970.

Nonetheless, protests disrupted the presidential ceremony as two students attempted to speak at the podium. The two students were taken away by the police, but not before being struck by the ceremonial mace, wielded by University historian Morris Bishop`14. The mace has been slightly bent since then, according to Engst.

“The mace is made of silver, a relatively soft metal — it’s not meant to whack people,” she said.

The inauguration of Frank H. T. Rhodes, in 1977, was a calmer ceremony than that of his predecessor. The day before, Carl Sagan, the Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences, moderated
a panel entitled “Spaceflight and the Future.” Rhodes outlined his view of the University as “the great reservoir on which the fulfillment of all hopes … must draw [and] humankind’s best hope against the stark alternatives of the future.”

Rhodes’ presidency strengthened faculty recruitment, broadened research links with industry and government, and brought about the Center for Theatre Arts and the Carl A. Kroch Library.

The inauguration of Hunter R. Rawlings III closely resembled today’s, with a symposium preceding the procession and an evening of student performances. Rawlings encouraged Cornellians to pursue the University’s “fundamental reason for being,” that of “the cultivation of the human mind for the sake of the individual, together with its moral improvement for the sake of society.”

Today’s ceremony, then, borrows some elements from the past and mixes them with the new. The inauguration of the first president to have attended Cornell, with proceedings in Qatar and New York City as well as the Ithaca campus, continues the legacy of the University’s inaugural tradition.

Archived article by Dan Galindo