November 29, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Should Cornell Exit the Ivy League?

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The Ivy League was officially founded in 1954 and became a National Collegiate Athletic Association athletic conference for Division I sports.   There are currently eight member schools, all along the East coast.    

 The Ivy League was founded on the premises of being a Division I sports conference with academic excellence, selectivity in admissions and financial aid based on need.      

 However, we must always remember membership in the Ivy League is a privilege and not a guarantee.  Especially as conference realignments occur and great universities are left on the sidelines.   As a reminder the Big Red hockey team plays in the ECAC Conference, as not all Ivy League Universities have hockey teams. I decided to write this column when Cornell football was awarded a nationally televised Ivy League game on ESPNU against the University of Pennsylvania on Friday Nov. 2nd, 2018 which was the same time as Trustee-Council weekend.  

 I have served two terms on the Cornell Council and enjoyed giving back to the University.  Cornell athletics are rarely featured on national television and I was surprised that the Cornell administration decided to host the annual TCAM reception and dinner in Barton Hall during the game rather than coming out and supporting the team.   As a result, only about 1,000 fans attended   the nationally televised game which was  quite frankly  an embarrassment to the University. Not to mention Cornell lost the game 0-20.   Nothing like kicking the team in the facemask when they are already down!  

When students apply to Cornell, the link to the Ivy League is obviously a big draw. Additionally, most of our faculty and administrative staff are proud to work at an Ivy League institution. However, our faculty and staff often forget that the Ivy League is a sports conference and not an academic affiliation.   Unfortunately, a large percentage of our faculty and administrative staff are completely indifferent to the true purpose of the Ivy League and are only concerned with the  title.  

Many Big Red athletes are amazed by the beautiful athletic facilities on other Ivy League campuses.   Therefore, is it any wonder that our football team (2-8) once again was swept by Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and hasn’t posted a winning record in 16 years?   Many of our alumni and student-athletes were understandably upset when it was announced that the historic Hoy Baseball Field would be relocated off campus near East Hill Plaza, in favor of a new computer center. 

 A few years ago, while parking my car, I found the Cornell Club Baseball team practicing on the roof of the parking garage, which was ridiculous.   I think everyone agrees academics comes first and the presence of a College of Computer Science is a wonderful opportunity.  But, why does academic progress often come at the expense of athletics at Cornell?   I find it ironic that Cornell talks a good game regarding global warming, but our students will soon need to ride a green-house gas emitting bus every day to attend practices and games.

Cornell soccer has had a spectacular season and are nationally ranked.  The only problem is that our soccer facility is located almost next to the Vet School and they rarely draw more than a couple hundred fans.   For years Cornell’s soccer games were held at the historic Schoellkopf Field and students would pack the West Stands ( the Student Section) for home games.  Unfortunately, the West Stands were condemned and torn down in 2016 and the administration didn’t think our students needed them anymore.  Today, Cornell is the only Ivy institution with “half” a stadium that continues to deteriorate.   This year they had to place a red tarp over part of the Crescent because it no longer meets safety protocols.  

Our faculty and staff have complained for years about the  money being allocated for Big Red athletics even though we spend less than most of the other Ivy League members.  On the other hand, we could save a lot of money by exiting the Ivy League and joining the Empire 8 sports conference with contests against Ithaca College, Cortland State and SUNY Brockport.   Even better, we could move our football team to Ithaca High School and turn Schoellkopf Field into a state of the art parking garage.   Short bus rides and no overnight travel would significantly reduce travel expenses for Cornell athletics.  Then, we could fill in Alumni Fields with even more buildings and move all our practices next to a strip plaza.   At least our student-athletes will be able to purchase a sub and soda after practice.

Our beautiful Ithaca campus has over 270 buildings, many of which are underutilized.   President David J. Skorton said that we need to do a better job repurposing many of our existing buildings.  A perfect example is the Johnson Graduate School of Business. It  was relocated to Sage Hall and was completely renovated.  It is now one of the most beautiful and technically advanced business schools in the country!    The last thing Cornell needs right now is another building that sucks more energy off the grid and removes healthy outside activities for our students.  Many universities and corporations are working to reduce their brick and mortar footprint and decrease energy consumption, Cornell seems to be doing the opposite.

In closing, I love Cornell and only wish our University would take our membership in the Ivy League more seriously like Harvard, Princeton and Yale.   As an alum who only lives about 90 miles from campus, it seems the only time Cornell is in the news is when tragedy strikes like the recent threats of violence on Nov. 7th. Cornell should be the model of what academics, campus life and athletics are all about!  As I mentioned,membership in the Ivy League is a privilege that’s not to be taken lightly.  There are many great universities in the United States who would love to take our place.     Let’s save our Ivy League heritage before it’s too late.  

Mark Wolcott ’83 is an active Cornell alum who has served on the Cornell Council and volunteers as a Class Representative program for Big Red Sprint Football.   He has spent his career in Commercial Banking. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.