Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

Throughout Nerode's 60-year tenure at Cornell, he witnessed considerable changes in how Cornell operates.

December 9, 2019

60 Years Later: Longest Serving Professor at Cornell Reflects on Journey Through Academia

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Cornell’s longest-serving professor, Prof. Anil Nerode, mathematics, first journeyed to Ithaca in 1959. Sixty years later, he shared his story of what drew him to Cornell and what inspired him to stay.

An ever-changing institution, Cornell saw the course of numerous historical events throughout Nerode’s time at the university — spanning an array of national-scale events, including the Vietnam protests and the Cold War to the Willard Straight Hall Takeover.

Nerode also witnessed the founding of a diverse range of majors, such as Asian American, Near Eastern and American Indian and Indigenous Studies, among others, all of which were instrumental in improving Cornell’s diversity, he told The Sun. Nerode also saw the founding of the Women’s Resource Center and Student Disability Services in addition to various additional cultural housing options.

While at Cornell, Nerode co-launched the Department of Computer Science in 1965. In the mathematics department, he served as its chair from 1982 to 1987 and has advised generations of Ph.D. students. He also served as the director of the Mathematical Science Institute.

Throughout his 60-year tenure at Cornell, Nerode has borne witness to considerable changes in Cornell’s appearance and how it operates. “The buildings were more separated and it was extremely attractive to have all the empty space around the buildings,” he said.

Administratively, Nerode believes that Cornell has experienced the same changes that every other major university encounters. Nerode remarked on the increased support for students and government involvement in the form of research grants and regulations that arose during his tenure at Cornell.

The university, although still of substantial size back then, operated in a bottom-up manner, Nerode told The Sun.

“All the faculty in all departments met in the auditorium to decide the future of the university. It is now top-down, but that is also the case everywhere else,” Nerode said.

While reflecting on his time at Cornell, Nerode brings back stories from his youth, particularly the lasting influence of his family background.

Growing up in India, Nerode’s childhood completely contrasts with his stationery life now — he was always on the move, since his father was an itinerant yogi. Most yogis were not married and did not bring their families along on their travels, but Nerode’s father was an outlier. This gave Nerode the unique experience of attending around 50 grammar schools during his adolescence.

“I learned how to acquire new subjects because I had to walk into class and pick up everything that the people had done before,” Nerode told The Sun.

Nerode’s high school experience in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was not only different from India, but also very distinct from high schools today. Nerode remarked that “there was no such thing as an academic advisor for people going to college.”

Any information about colleges was from the news. At the time, there was significant coverage on researchers at the University of Chicago working on the Manhattan Project. As a 14-year-old, Nerode wanted to become a physicist, so he headed off to the University of Chicago “with $17 in my pocket and a small suitcase.”

Soon, however, Nerode realized that physics was not for him.

“The professor got up for the first session and said look to your right, look to your left, one of you won’t be here next semester,” he said. “I found that to be the attitude of physicists towards students: to cut down the number of students as much as possible and deal only with the ones that they wanted to. I just did not find that a very humanistic thing.”

Nerode’s outstanding performance at Chicago led him to him receive his bachelor’s degree in 1948 at the mere age of 16 and his Ph.D. at 24.

In the summer of 1957, Nerode visited Cornell to meet with some of the world’s top scholars in mathematical logic. He gave lectures and met with famous researchers, the two most prominent ones being Kurt Gödel and Alfred Tarski. After spending time with Gödel at Princeton and going to Berkeley to study with Tarski, Nerode wondered where he would go the following year.

A miracle came in the form of an unsolicited letter from Cornell. When he visited in 1957, he dubbed it the most beautiful place he had ever seen: “I didn’t have any hesitation at all and no hesitations since then,” Nerode said.

Nerode’s own teaching style has also evolved since coming to Cornell. “I was educated at Chicago under the business of doing the cleanest, shortest expositions of absolutely everything,” said Nerode. Now, he has developed his own method: He teaches in historical order. Translating ancient theories into modern notation allows Nerode to show his students the origins of mathematics.

He has already taught generations of families. Some of his past students’ grandchildren have attended Cornell and Nerode is delighted to see the grandparents come back during graduation time.

Both his mother and his father taught until the age of 94, and Nerode may continue this tradition. “My life consists of teaching and research,” Nerode remarked.