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.