March 9, 2007

Exhibition Celebrates Life of Ezra Cornell

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Generations of Cornellians gathered yesterday at the Hirshland Gallery of Kroch Library to celebrate the opening of the exhibition “I Would Found an Institution: The Ezra Cornell Bicentennial.” The showcase lauded Ezra Cornell as a man of revolutionary ideas, who founded a truly model American university that continues to carry on his legacy.

“It is really incredible that after 142 years, the University is still honoring the founder [Cornell] and to this day is committed to the ideals and values he set forth,” said the founder’s great-great-great grandson Ezra Cornell ’71, who spoke at the opening reception.

These ideals were to establish a university “where any person [could] find instruction in any study” as first set forth in a letter from the founder to Andrew D. White, one of the many displays in the exhibit.

“They are ideas that were very, very radical: the idea of a completely nonsectarian university with practical studies, English and agriculture along with the classics, a university open to women and foreign students,” said Elaine Engst, the director of the library’s Division of Rare and
Manuscript Collections and one of the exhibition’s curators.

In his speech, President David Skorton acknowledged that these ideals are a goal that Cornell as a university is still struggling to achieve. As Cornell mentioned in his speech that followed, the high costs of tuition still remain a barrier to many. Nevertheless, the University administration continues to strive towards the ideal that the founder set down years ago.

“The radical idea of a diverse university is my number one priority,” Skorton said after his speech.

Appreciation of the founder’s revolutionary ideas is evident not only among Engst, Skorton and Cornell, but also Cornell alums, current students and members of the Ithaca community who were present at the exhibition opening.

“It’s a grand celebration of his commitment to radical and lofty ideals. He is a remarkable man in the sense he created himself, as an engineer,” said Brad Carruth ’68.

“I live in Ithaca, and I really appreciate the opportunity to come to campus and be enriched by the exhibit,” said Linda Byard ’68. “He is a very interesting figure because of his versatility and the earliness of his notion of encouraging education for all people.”

The exhibition, put together by co-curators Engst and Carol Kammen, itself consisted of two parts, one focusing on the founding of Cornell and the other on the life of the founder. It follows Cornell from his meager beginnings as a farmer with no formal education to a wealthy shareholder of Western Union to the founder of his “educational experiment,” as he called it, an experiment that became Cornell University.

Among the 15 display cases are the world’s first telegraph machine used by Cornell and inventor Samuel Morse, letters written to family, the first rather limited list of course offerings, one of the 30,000 shells in Cornell’s collection and the seals used on the first Cornell University diplomas.

“Looking at the exhibits is so neat, to see the manuscripts — it makes it much more real,” said Marissa Fessenden ’09.

Even so, caught up in school, current students can easily forget the beginnings of the University.

According to Lisa Zheng ’09, “As a prospective student, it’s a big draw, but I think we forget about it after time.”

The exhibit stands as an opportunity for members of the Cornell community not only to celebrate Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University, but also to come and learn about who he was.

“I’m hoping that this exhibit will help people understand where this University comes from,” Engst said.