September 9, 2009

History: Depression Fostered Setbacks and Growth for C.U.

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The analogies in the news media and popular culture since October 2008 have been hard to miss. The housing bust is being termed the worst since 1929. The University freshmen reading project this summer was The Grapes of Wrath. And if the parallels were not self-evident already, the current economy is referred to as the Great Recession.
We are currently living in the worst economy since the Great Depression, according to a statement released by the World Bank in March. President Barack Obama has been constantly compared to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt because of the tasks each of them had to undertake as president of the United States during the beginning of their tenures. But perhaps a comparison that should be just as frequently drawn by Cornellians is that between President David Skorton and President Livingston Farrand, the Cornell president who oversaw the University during the worst of the Great Depression.
The Great Recession has forced Skorton to make decisions that mirror those of his predecessor during the Great Depression. The Depression in the 1930s was preceded by the Roaring Twenties, a time of intense growth in the United States and at Cornell. Cornell’s budget for the endowed colleges had grown to its highest point of over $2,000,000 in 1924, according to Morris Bishop’s book A History of Cornell. But by 1933, Cornell’s debt had risen to a high level of $685,000.
The perilous financial position of the University forced Farrand’s hand into action. According to Bishop, the University imposed a ten-percent pay cut for personnel in the endowed colleges and six percent pay cut in the state colleges for salaries over $1,000. Department budgets were likewise decreased, including a 20-percent reduction in all departmental positions for instructors and assistants. Bishop wrote that at the time, “faculty morale was as low as its salaries.”
Other universities across the country were similarly affected and had to resort to similar tactics. According to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s budget was decreased by 55 percent in the four-year span of 1929 to 1933, and faculty salaries were lowered by 50 percent on average.
While today Cornell has received $60 million in stimulus funding for research on campus, during Farrand’s tenure, many of his lofty research aspirations had to fall by the wayside. Farrand longed to develop a new research center at Cornell that blended fields including physiology, biochemistry and biophysics with area such as plant physiology, plant pathology, genetics and soil sciences according to Bishop. Farrand estimated the cost of the project to be $9 million; and while he was granted $1.5 million in 1929 for the center, the receiving of that money was dependent on the University’s ability to match those initial funds — a task that proved unachievable given the stock market crash of that year. “The woes of depression years dissipated the President’s [Farrand’s] dreams,” Bishop wrote.
Along with University research, the reputation of the Engineering College was similarly handicapped by the Depression despite the University’s attempts at expansion. According to Bishop, the first degrees for chemical engineering were given out in 1933, new administrative engineering courses were established in 1934 and the Department of Automotive and Aeronautic Engineering was created in 1936.
But despite all this, enrollment in engineering was dropping and the college was falling behind its peers. In response to the times, engineering enrollment dropped to a low of 812 students in 1935, according to Bishop.
“The depression threw many engineers out of work and the big companies ceased to send their scouts to the campuses to sign up likely graduates,” Bishop wrote.
Farrand had stated that during the Depression, much of Cornell’s equipment across the colleges was inadequate, but when it came to engineering, the equipment was often obsolete.
“The fact had to be faced that Cornell was losing, even in competition with other engineering schools,” Bishop wrote. “The equipment was of an interest all too exclusively historic. … Virtually no research was done. …” And since budgets were cut, professors were not given the funds to travel outside of Ithaca for professional meetings. “Thus Cornell’s teachers were cut off from contact with new developments in the engineering world.”
As the engineering department’s reputation declined, and the job market for engineers was already dwindling, the University created a placement bureau in 1933 in order to help graduates find permanent jobs and undergraduate students find summer employment. With the combined efforts of the placement bureau and Roosevelt’s New Deal, many Cornell students, including engineers, were successful in finding gainful employment — even if their new jobs did not match their fields of study.
But as The Grapes of Wrath related in its narrative of Tom Joad and his family’s travails as they lost their farm and sought to head west so they could earn a paltry income picking fruit, many Americans during the Great Depression were not as fortunate as Cornell students. Even so, many Cornell students felt the economic pinch just as much as their University.
Even though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, fraternities lacked the financial wherewithal to celebrate. According to Bishop fraternities reined in number of house parties and dances they could host during the Depression.
While the more expensive options for spending time outside the classroom were limited to Depression-era students, Bishop explained that the students still found other ways to pass the time by inheriting a “mood [that] was more rebellious.”
As the American economy struggled to regain its footing, many Americans and Cornell students became disillusioned with the capitalist system. According to John Bowman’s book Socialism in America, one of the two primary catalysts for the rise of the socialism movement in America was the onset of the Great Depression.
Since Soviet Russia was devoid of a similar stifling depression, many Cornellians thus came to believe in the superiority of socialism over capitalism. Different organizations with communist or socialist leanings sprang up at Cornell during the Depression including the Cornell Liberal Club, the American Student Union and the Young Communist League, according to Bishop. One Communist Rally held on campus during the Depression called for the abolition of prelims, final exams, courses and morality.
Political rallies and meetings, however, were not the only way Cornell students sought to fill the gaps between class and sleep. In 1933, a committee was formed to bring back the annual Spring Day that was halted during World War I, according to Bishop. An “aquatic carnival” was held on Beebe Lake. The carnival included boat races, canoe tilting and a duck race dubbed the Donald Duck Derby. While the Depression might have stifled student spending, it was powerless to suppress student creativity as fraternities, sororities and other groups came up with clever names for their duck racers. Pearl S. Duck (referencing novelist Pearl S. Buck), the Duck of York, Delta Delta Delta’s Duck Duck Duck and Moby Duck were a few Bishop felt the need to relate in his novel.
President Farrand’s wife presided over the race as judge. While Moby Duck finished ahead of the pack, Mrs. Farrand had him disqualified — apparently the group that entered Moby Duck failed to convey to him that flying was against the rules. Ducky Strike from Syracuse University’s Psi Upsilon chapter was then deemed the most mighty and was awarded first place by Mrs. Farrand.
Spring Day was revived in 1933, the lowest point of the American Great Depression. But as the aquatic carnival proved, Cornellians would not allow their spirits to fall into the same depression as their economy.
On June 9, 1932, the Cornell Alumni News wrote: “What shall we say of the crisis of 1929 and to the subsequent depression? We are now in the trough and experiencing the pains of liquidation and readjustment but no one familiar with past panics can doubt that the cycle will again run its course and that we shall once more enjoy a greater prosperity. This is the lesson of history.”