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.
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.
One hundred and fifty years after Ezra Cornell promised “any person … any study” to students of the University he founded, this ambitious motto still remains aspirational, — and unfulfilled — according to professors who came to share their reflections in a Monday panel. For Prof. Gerard Aching M.A. ’90, Ph.D. ’91, romance studies, Ezra’s words served as “a license for experimenting and exploring.” As a graduate student, he was encouraged to take his inquiries to areas beyond his own discipline and even into other departments, he recalled. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Aching said he also cherished the diverse group of people from “Iowa, France, South Carolina and Puerto Rico” that he studied with. Eduardo Peñalver ’94, dean of Cornell Law School, echoed Aching’s experience in expansive learning but also added how “Ezra took the ‘any person’ language very literally.”
Peñalver said Ezra once advocated for two students who were rejected by admissions officers because “they don’t know enough.” The founder, upon hearing about this decision, asked the admissions director, “if they don’t know enough, why don’t you teach them?”
He thought college education should be affordable enough that a student could pay their way through it by working on a local farm or on the grounds. Ezra even promoted an “Earn while you Earn” program, which featured an on-campus shoe factory that allowed students to work while studying, Peñalver said, citing A History of Cornell by Morris Bishop.