As the rapids roared below us and the suspension bridge swayed in a Fall Creek February gale, she laughed with me (and at me) the way she’d done countless times before. She reminded me of the legend that says you’ll die if you kiss on the bridge. She made some crack about the smell of the Thai bubble tea on my breath. And she said something about how I shouldn’t hate her for not liking boba. Though I don’t remember her exact words, I vividly remember mine.
Cornellians crave order. Our campus teems with neurotic overachievers who meticulously plan their days, their semesters and their careers. But Cornell, an inherently disorderly institution, often leaves these order-seekers wanting. Cornell’s disorganization might be most evident in its campus landscape; to the chagrin of many, the buildings that form the East Hill skyline are a seemingly incoherent mishmash of architectural styles. But we should value Cornell’s architectural hodgepodge, as it reflects our identity as a “non-pretentious college,” (as historian Morris Bishop ’13, Ph.D. ’26 put it), and embodies the once-radical principles that have guided the university for more than 150 years.
While sitting in Zeus, you absentmindedly scroll through Facebook, past a flash of red. You register that you skimmed something you didn’t like. You scroll back up. Uh oh, it’s another The Cornell Daily Sun opinion piece with a dramatic title and 43 comments. You’ve just encountered a hot take, a column with a controversial argument that might not be all that “woke.”
A piece that’s part of this storied genre might rail against funding for Planned Parenthood, it might defend the legacy admissions system or it might discuss the isolating experience of being a Christian on campus. These columns, which fall across the political spectrum, tend to bring Ithaca’s notorious Facebook trolls out of the woodwork, evoke mainstream campus derision, and spawn many memes.
On a November evening — more winter than fall — two dozen Cornell Political Union members debated a contentious question: Is Cornell failing the United States? I passionately opposed a fellow ILRie who argued that Cornell does a disservice to the nation by failing to address its toxic student culture, since I’m confident that Cornellians’ contributions to society outweigh our institution’s flaws. But a portion of her speech stuck with me. “To deal with [Cornell’s] hyper competitive environment and zero-work life balance,” she observed, “Cornell students turn to alcohol — whether it’s karaoke Tuesday, Fishbowls or the handle of vodka in the closet.” This tendency should be glaringly obvious, but it’s one that many of us seem to be in denial about. For many Cornellians, alcohol doesn’t just enhance a night out; it’s seen as a tool for coping with the demands of life on East Hill.
When I leave Ithaca for good come May, I want to be able to hang on to more than memories. If you follow me around campus long enough on any given day, you will see me go out of my way multiple times to photograph Cornell’s scenery — both the beautiful and the mundane. A quick glance at my camera roll reveals a sunset photo of a West Campus staircase, a crooked picture of the Arts Quad after the season’s first snowfall, a gloomy shot of my favorite bus stop and a 37-second video of the McGraw Tower chimes performing a spooky rendition of the alma mater on Halloween. And although I might look like a clueless Midwestern dad taking pictures for the family group chat, approaching Cornell like a tourist has led me to better appreciate my college experience, and it can do the same for other Cornellians
During my first three years here, I took my experience too much for granted; until the end of my junior year, graduation seemed to be a century away. I allowed myself to get too caught up in the daily grind — the demands of prelims, the responsibilities of campus involvement, the stress of social life — to fully appreciate living a lifestyle I’ll never experience again on a stunningly picturesque campus in America’s best college town. And I realized that memories of unpleasant or high-pressure experiences have a way of crowding out memories of the fleeting yet meaningful moments of calm, usually outdoors, that bond me to this place and help keep me sane. A tourist mentality creates and elevates positive memories.
The Saturday before last, I woke up to a flood of Facebook posts depicting a smiling young man, Antonio Tsialas ’23, an 18-year old freshman who, according to one of the posts, had just been hired as a campus tour guide. Antonio had been missing since Thursday night, when he attended a fraternity event, and the posts implored anyone who knew his whereabouts to contact the authorities. As the hours passed and more “missing student” posts appeared in my timeline, the pit in my stomach grew and grew, and I braced myself for a tragedy. Late Saturday evening, my fears — Cornell’s fears — were confirmed with a brief mass email that told us Antonio’s body had been found in Fall Creek. I had never met Antonio, so my entire knowledge of his personality, of his humanity, came from three lonely adjectives in the mass email: thoughtful, smart, outgoing.
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.
2019 marks the 10th anniversary of a uniquely Cornellian spat, a weird, manifestly pointless, partially televised dispute between pundits Ann Coulter ’84 and Keith Olbermann ’79. The tussle concerned the Ivy League legitimacy of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which Coulter questioned in an attempt to discredit Olbermann, a CALS alumnus. New York Magazine called the tussle an “awesome college catfight,” The Washington Examiner dubbed Coulter’s comments “schadenfruede-licious” and Jordan Fabian ’09, editor-at-large of The Cornell Review, the conservative student publication Coulter helped found, told The Sun he found her instigation “pretty funny.”
The story of the “catfight” is an entertaining one, but it’s also a cautionary tale of two alumni who exposed toxic Cornell attitudes to a national audience. We should not follow the example they set. Coulter, a right-wing provocateur, is a defective product of Ezra Cornell’s noble institution.