While still a senior in college, Ezra Cornell ’70 assumed the role of life trustee on Cornell University’s board of trustees. As the great-great-great-grandson of Ezra Cornell, co-founder of the University, he would celebrate his 50th year in service of the board and Cornell by this Sunday.
Cornell University is unique among academic institutions in having a life trustee position, filled by the eldest living descendant of Ezra Cornell, according to the University charter. Alonzo Cornell, Ezra Cornell’s son, was the university’s first life trustee. Ezra Cornell ’70 is the fifth and longest-serving life trustee.
The charter’s original wording was that the “eldest male lineal descendant” serve as the life trustees. In 1984, the University asked the New York State Legislature to amend the charter, partly because the oldest child of Ezra Cornell ’70 is his daughter, Katy Cornell ’01, and she would not be able to fill the position if it still required the descendant to be male.
When the University charter was first written, Ezra Cornell’s direct descendants were to attend the University free of charge. After the fourth generation, given the increase in the number of direct descendants with each subsequent generation, the board of trustees ended this practice in 1932.
On Oct. 18, Ezra Cornell ’70 was honored at the Trustee-Council Annual Meeting in Statler Auditorium. Robert S. Harrison ’76, chairman of the Board, gave a personal tribute to Cornell and introduced a video honoring him, which was made by his colleagues and family.
Harrison also told the story of when Cornell’s ’70 application when he first applied to the University: The dean of admissions assumed that an “Ezra Cornell” applying to Cornell University was a prank, so they put his application on a bulletin board and never got back to him. It was not until months later when Ezra visited the school with his mother and grandmother that the admissions staff realized Ezra Cornell’s application was not a joke, and admitted him.
In 1959, William Ezra Cornell ’40, father of Ezra Cornell ’70, died after just two years as life trustee. Although Ezra was the eldest lineal descendant, under New York State law, he could not serve as trustee until he was 21 years old
For 10 years, Cornell was named a “trustee in waiting.” This 10-year period was the only period in University history that the Cornell family was not represented on the board.
Ezra became the life trustee on his 21st birthday, on November 17, 1969, during his senior year. He also became Cornell’s first student trustee, as student-elected trustees didn’t serve until 1971.
On Nov. 17, 2019, Ezra Cornell ’70 will officially mark 50 years of service as a Cornell trustee. This will tie him with Mynderse Van Cleef ’1874, an Ithaca banker and judge, for the longest-serving active Cornell trustee in university history.
During his tenure as trustee so far, Cornell has worked on many board committees, including the committees of Land Grant and Statutory College Affairs — known today as the Committee on University Relations — Buildings and Properties, and Trustee-Community Communications.