Cornell University

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CORNELL UNIVERSITY had its origin in the desire of Ezra Cornell, a millionaire telegraph contractor and member of the New York state legislature, to establish an institution of higher learning where practical education could be obtained by all who sought it. When the Morrill Land Grant Act was passed in 1862, he foresaw that the 990,000 acres in the form of land scrip to which New York State was entitled might be made to provide a large endowment for a university: at the rate the public lands were passing into private ownership, especially the white pinelands of the Lake states, an investment in them would be sure to return a high capital gain in a few years. With the aid of Andrew D. White, a wealthy Syracusan and a fellow member of Cornell's in the state legislature, the state granted a charter for Cornell University in 1865. In 1868 the university opened for instruction on the hill overlooking Cayuga Lake in Ithaca. White, who was Cornell's first president, departed from the founder's ideas of a university and designed Cornell along the lines of Oxford and Yale; and Henry W. Sage, a millionaire lumberman and chairman of the board of the new institution, made a spectacular success of the investment in Wisconsin pinelands that Ezra Cornell had acquired with the scrip. The university's endowment in 1890 then surpassed the endowments of all but one or two other American universities.

Unlike Michigan State University and the University of Illinois, other land grant institutions, Cornell started as a private institution for which no public appropriations were made, with the exception of the initial granting of land scrip. In fact, the teaching of agricultural science, which the Morrill Act intended to foster, limped along at the new institution until the late 1880s, when the federal government made appropriations for research and teaching agricultural science under the Hatch Act of 1887 and the second Morrill Act of 1890. In 1893 New York State, encouraged by the remarkable success of Liberty Hyde Bailey in making agricultural science useful to the average farmer and by the shrewd lobbying of Jacob Gould Schurman, Cornell's president from 1892 to 1920, began appropriating funds to Cornell for agriculture, and in 1895 it provided for the financial basis for the Veterinary College. Later came the College of Home Economics and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, making four state schools on the Cornell campus. The School of Nutrition is also partly state funded. The colleges of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, Medicine, and Architecture; the schools of Hotel, Business, Public Administration, and Nursing; and the Law and the graduate schools have always been entirely private, although since 1961 the federal government has made funds available for research and buildings for many of these schools. Cornell University thus developed into a hybrid institution, partly private and partly public—both a member of the Ivy League and a partner of the State University of New York.

Cornell, White, and Sage were early advocates of coeducation, and Cornell University admitted women beginning in 1872, although Sage College for Women was not completed until 1875. From the outset the university's stand in behalf of secular education, when sectarian influences were still strong in higher education, brought upon its trustees, White, and the faculty frequent attacks for their putative godlessness. Among the innovations of the university may be cited the elective system, which was in operation at Cornell from the very first, well before it was introduced at Harvard. The Hotel School and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations became the models for similar institutions elsewhere. They, like all the Cornell schools, greatly broadened the offering of courses of instruction available to students, who were encouraged to cross-register.

At the end of the twentieth century, Cornell had a total enrollment of nearly 20,000 students, including more than 13,600 undergraduates and more than 5,600 graduate students in Ithaca, along with nearly 700 students in the university's two medical graduate/professional schools in New York City. The student body balanced almost evenly between men and women, and minority students made up more than a quarter of the undergraduate population.


Bishop, Morris. A History of Cornell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962.

Gates, Paul Wallace. The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University: A Study in Land Policy and Absentee Ownership. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1943.

Parsons, Kermit Carlyle. The Cornell Campus: A History of Its Planning and Development. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Paul W.Gates/a. r.

See alsoCoeducation Movement ; Education, Higher: Colleges and Universities ; Hatch Act ; Ivy League ; Land Grants for Education ; Lumber Industry ; Morrill Act .

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