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Ezra Cornell's motto is an aspiration still unfulfilled, professors say.

October 29, 2018

What Does ‘Any Person, Any Study’ Mean? Professors Deconstruct Ezra Cornell’s Motto

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One hundred and fifty years after Ezra Cornell promised “any person … any study” to students of the University he founded, this ambitious motto still remains aspirational, — and unfulfilled — according to professors who came to share their reflections in a Monday panel.

For Prof. Gerard Aching M.A. ’90, Ph.D. ’91, romance studies, Ezra’s words served as “a license for experimenting and exploring.” As a graduate student, he was encouraged to take his inquiries to areas beyond his own discipline and even into other departments, he recalled.

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Aching said he also cherished the diverse group of people from “Iowa, France, South Carolina and Puerto Rico” that he studied with.

Eduardo Peñalver ’94, dean of Cornell Law School, echoed Aching’s experience in expansive learning but also added how “Ezra took the ‘any person’ language very literally.”

Peñalver said Ezra once advocated for two students who were rejected by admissions officers  because “they don’t know enough.” The founder, upon hearing about this decision, asked the admissions director, “if they don’t know enough, why don’t you teach them?”

He thought college education should be affordable enough that a student could pay their way through it by working on a local farm or on the grounds. Ezra even promoted an “Earn while you Earn” program, which featured an on-campus shoe factory that allowed students to work while studying, Peñalver said, citing A History of Cornell by Morris Bishop.

Even while recognizing how Cornell was among the first universities to admit women, African- Americans and other minorities, Peñalver sees Ezra’s promise as a continuous work in progress.

“There’s a lot of pressure to be elite,” Peñalver said. “The motto is a corrective of our natural temptations [to be an elite institution] that we’re most likely to forget or to neglect.”

Prof. Melissa Ferguson, psychology, and Prof. Natasha Holmes, physics, both shared their own research in identifying where Cornell, and most other academic communities, continue to fall short of Ezra’s ambition.

Ferguson, who studies subtle obstacles to success for minority groups, said these barriers often operate through implicit cognition — the quick, unconscious way in which psychological beliefs about people, power and importance sway behavior. These subtle effects can add up and “affect dramatically” people’s perceptions of others, she said.

As a result, biases are still persistent at Cornell, a university whose newest class is 52 percent women.

“It’s not just about hitting numbers in matriculation,” Ferguson said. “It’s what students and faculty members experiences are like when they’re here.”

Holmes’ research on the other hand focuses on how teachers can inclusively convey the physical sciences to generations of active learners.

“The key to ‘any person … any study’ is agency,” Holmes said. “And by that I mean handing over control to our students to make some decisions in their learning.”

Holmes promotes active learning in the lab by not simply assigning experiments but allowing students to engage in an organic process of discovery.

Provost Michael Kotlikoff, who initiated the discussion, recognized recent national events, especially the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, as outright opposition to Ezra’s words.

“Ezra’s promise rests upon respect for all, openness to educate all and, fundamentally, a rejection of hate,” Kotlikoff said. “Today, Cornell University is rededicating itself to welcoming any person. We are all so proudly celebrating an essential part of the University’s heritage, as well as its present and future.”