November 11, 2022

KUBINEC | Ezra Cornell’s Worst Fear

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As construction on Cornell’s original women’s dormitory neared completion in 1873, Ezra Cornell slipped a note into the building’s cornerstone explaining what he saw as the biggest danger to his co-educational school.

“From these halls, sectarianism must be forever excluded,” Cornell’s founder wrote. Today, this nonsectarian ideal is used as proof that Cornell was founded secular, but Ezra really just meant “any creed or all creeds,” basically meaning Christian denominations, would be met with “equal welcome” at Cornell. 

What I hope to show you is that Cornell has never been really secular, and today’s claims of secularity obscure the fact that Cornell is still a dogmatic place.

Each day, Cornell tour guides give scores of prospective students some version of this narrative, distilled in a recent promotional Cornell article: “Before Cornell was founded, religious denominations built colleges and adhered to strict, dogmatic curricula. In 1868, Cornell opened its doors and offered a secular education.”

This story is flatly untrue. I spoke with Frederika Loew ’12, MA Archaeology ’16, whose master’s thesis examined this Cornell origin myth. 

“Cornell was not founded as a secular university,” Loew said, noting that the University retroactively branded its founding as secular sometime during the 20th century. 

A.D. White had a troubled relationship with faith, but “following him, other presidents and faculty members really pushed back about [what others in the region saw as] the godless institution that was Cornell,” Loew said. 

But not even White cast aspersions that Cornell was without a worldview. “We will labor to make this a Christian institution,” he said in his inaugural address.

Here’s my bugaboo with all this: when we say Cornell was founded secular, (which it wasn’t) we make it seem like Cornell is free of dogma (which it isn’t). Cornell is no longer predominantly Christian, but just being irreligious doesn’t keep us from holding narrow worldviews — creating sects, as Ezra Cornell would’ve said. And when a sect crosses over from being something that a lot of people agree on to being the natural order of things at a neutral, secular university, then we’ve become sectarian.

We should question why our sects believe what they do. Consider two values of Cornell’s dominant sect: prestige and progressivism. 

Ezra Cornell’s note was unearthed in 1997 because Cornell was building the Johnson School of Management, where business students today gather for coffee chats: a ritual undertaken in pursuit of our career-and-wealth gods. 

There is a dogmatic belief at Cornell that the worthwhile way to spend one’s academic time involves doing things that will land Apple internships, and that making more money is an unabashed good in life. This is why Cornell is moving the baseball team off campus to make room for a colossal new computer science building

Coding can be interesting, but the department wouldn’t be seeing the same explosive growth if CS degrees didn’t lead to high-paying, prestigious jobs. Meanwhile, humanities departments sit in deteriorating buildings, dreaming up interesting class titles to keep enrollment numbers above water. All of this stems from the assumption that money and prestigious jobs are things worth pursuing more than loving your college classes, and few seem to question it. This is a form of dogma.

Cornell is also dogmatic about its politics. Ninety-eight percent of employee donations went to left-wing candidates and causes in 2020. A petition to expel a maskless partier in 2020 drew thousands of virtual signatures. Just this week, Cornell’s very own conservative provocateur Ann Coulter was shouted down.

Maybe this doesn’t sound so bad to you. Ann Coulter has said some really bad things. Money can sort of buy happiness. Perhaps progressive viewpoints make campus more inclusive. I, for one, don’t think dogma is bad in of itself. I think it’s bad when we don’t realize it exists.

Like David Foster Wallace said in that graduation speech about the fish: “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

Secularism isn’t a clean slate. It assures our dominant worldview isn’t religious, but it doesn’t do away with dominant worldviews. 

To be clear, it’s not like Ryan Lombardi is sending out emails instructing students to care about prestige and progressivism. It’s something deeper — our social media posts, the examples professors use in lectures, our offhand jokes and the types of people we choose to date all create an environment where certain beliefs are preferred by the mass of Cornellians. Dogma is the water we swim in, to borrow from Foster Wallace. We need to become aware of that water.

At Cornell’s founding, sectarianism was pretty easy to spot. If A.D. White walked into his office one day and a guy was like, “We’re a baptist college now, pack up your treatise on God and science and go,” we clearly would’ve missed Cornell’s intentions.

But today’s secular climate makes sectarianism less visible. By denying the existence of dogma, Cornell makes it seem that the way things are is the way things should be — that razing baseball fields and blaring circus music at speaking engagements is the natural order of things. We’re not dogmatic! We’re secular, just like always! 

We need to recognize things could be otherwise. There are plenty of smart people who, for totally valid reasons, don’t care much about wealth and prestige or progressive politics. Many of those people don’t go to Cornell, but when they do, they deserve “equal welcome.”

Otherwise, we’ve become sectarian, and Ezra Cornell’s biggest fear has come true.

Jack Kubinec is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected]. You Don’t Know Jack runs alternate Thursdays this semester.