October 23, 2019

SULLIVAN BAKER | Academia Must Embrace Ezra Cornell’s Populist Vision

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Ezra Cornell, the wealthy telegraph magnate who would co-found our uniquely egalitarian university in the aftermath of the Civil War, was convinced that 19th-century society was bound to undergo a dramatic transformation, a “revolution by which the downtrodden millions will be elevated to their equal and just rights, and each led to procure and enjoy … [the] happiness that all men and women are entitled to as the fruits of their labor.”

Cornell was determined to use his fortune to further this inevitable revolution, so Cornell University, the crown jewel of his philanthropic efforts, would be governed by bold populist principles. Unlike the other great universities of the East, which were defined by their colonial origins and aristocratic traditions, Cornell University would provide an elite education to students who were anything but elite: “downtrodden” young men and women of all faiths who would not otherwise set foot in an ivory tower.

Though Cornell’s ethos of service to the common man and woman had great influence on the other educational reformers of his era, including Leland and Jane Stanford (whose namesake university was once referred to as the “Cornell of the West”), America’s prominent private institutions of higher learning have lost the trust of many of the ordinary Americans they exist or should exist to serve. With the prominence of exorbitant and ever-rising tuition rates, recent admissions fraud scandals and campus struggles with racism and bigotry, it’s hard to escape the sense that schools like Cornell are set up to cater to ruling elites at the expense of those who lack financial and social capital.

This crisis of trust is especially dangerous in an era when faith in American institutions is rapidly eroding, truth is considered malleable and “alternative facts” reign. Institutions that stand for truth, substantive intellectual debate and methodical scientific inquiry are more important now than ever, for Americans are more vulnerable than ever to manipulation and gaslighting. Those who distrust academia are liable to be misled on issues as diverse as economic policy, climate science and vaccine safety and the public acceptance of incorrect information has grievous consequences for our democracy and our society.

To restore Americans’ trust in our nation’s system of higher education, academia must embrace Ezra Cornell’s populist vision of “service to the ‘downtrodden millions.’” Such an embrace means taking — at minimum — two steps to bring academia closer to ordinary Americans. First, universities must expand on-the-ground community engagement, which directly translates academic work into grassroots change. Second, academia must foster public appreciation for the less-practical academic disciplines by finding innovative ways to communicate the social value of the liberal arts. To see what on-the-ground engagement and innovative communication look like, we can turn to Cornellians whose work to “elevate” the populace would make Ezra Cornell proud.

The ILR School’s High Road Fellowship program, in which I participated last summer, pays Cornellians to apply their education in the service of nonprofit organizations driving economic development and social justice movements in Buffalo, N.Y., a vibrant city still recovering from the ill effects of industrial decline. In addition to administering the High Road program, Cornell in Buffalo supports Partnership for the Public Good, a coalition of community organizations that’s part think tank and part advocacy group; engages labor and management to safeguard worker health and safety; and works with local corporations to protect the region’s environment. In Buffalo, Cornell leverages its wealth and intellectual heft to serve the city’s diverse and sometimes under-resourced working class.

While ILRies are on the ground in Buffalo, Cornellian historians are democratizing the liberal arts. Cornell recently hired Prof. Stephen Vider, history, to lead the Public History Initiative at Cornell. Prof. Vider, a historian of gender and sexuality, will continue to make history, a cornerstone of the liberal arts tradition but an often-overlooked discipline today, accessible to Americans who might not otherwise engage with the field. Prof. Vider uses art to convey the brutality of the HIV/AIDS crisis and bring to light the inspiring stories of activists who have advanced LGBTQ+ rights through acts of community-building and resistance. In 2017, Prof. Vider curated “AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism,” an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York that examined “how artists and activists have expanded the idea of caretaking and family and navigated the political stakes of domestic life in the face of the HIV/AIDS crisis.” He also co-directed the short film “A Place in the City: Three Stories about AIDS at Home,” which has been featured at prominent film festivals around the world.

Another liaison between the historical community and the broader public, the Cornell-educated Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, has amassed a 300,000-person Twitter following by providing historical context to modern-day political debates and “dunking” on purveyors of historical disinformation, most notably faux historian Dinesh D’Souza. With Twitter as his microphone, Kruse has become a public intellectual, someone who reaches Americans more likely to read a detailed Twitter thread on modern political history than to pick up a book on the same subject.

Vider, Kruse and the ILRies in Buffalo build trust between academia and the public by showing how schools like Cornell can invest in the well-being of Americans far from the ivory tower. For the sake of our society, America’s universities must do more to promote the spirit of public engagement that these Cornellians exemplify.

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at jds526@cornell.edu. Regards to Davy runs every other Wednesday this semester.