Ezra Cornell

Ezra Cornell

Ezra Cornell, the great-great-great grandson of founder Ezra Cornell and the university’s current life trustee, was honored Oct. 18 for 50 years of service on the board of trustees.

A 21-year-old Ezra Cornell is pictured strolling outside Uris Library shortly after he took his seat on the university’s board of trustees in fall 1969.

Cornell was recognized at the Trustee-Council Annual Meeting in Statler Auditorium in front of fellow trustees, council members, friends and family members.

The university’s charter stipulates that the eldest living descendant of founder Ezra Cornell serve on the board as a lifetime trustee. The founder’s son, Alonzo Cornell, was the first life trustee. Ezra Cornell ’70 is the university’s fifth, and longest-serving, life trustee.

At the meeting, board Chairman Robert S. Harrison ’76 offered a personal tribute to Ezra before presenting him with a certificate and introducing a video honoring him and his leadership.

“I’ve known Ezra now for almost half a century – from when I was his fraternity brother, a student trustee, and then again, many years later, when I returned to the board in my current role,” Harrison said. “Ezra, in a very natural and remarkably effective way, has served and continues to serve as the university’s conscience. He has been the living embodiment of the board’s guiding principle: Always act in the long-term best interest of the university as a whole.”

Ezra’s longevity as a life trustee is due to the young age at which he took his seat on the board. In 1959, his father, William Ezra Cornell, then the university’s life trustee, died after just two years in the role. While the family’s loss left 11-year-old Ezra as the eldest lineal descendant of the founder, under New York state law he could not legally serve as a trustee until his 21st birthday.

He was therefore named a “trustee in waiting,” which at the time earned him national attention; he even appeared in an episode of comedian Ernie Kovacs’ quiz show “Take a Good Look” in 1960.

That 10-year period Ezra Cornell spent as a trustee in waiting, 1959-69, marked the only time in its history that the board did not have a member of the Cornell family represented.

Ezra Cornell entered Cornell University as a freshman in the fall of 1966 – but Harrison told the story of how Ezra’s original application to Cornell was initially thought to be a prank by a relatively new admissions dean and his staff, who thought that “Ezra Cornell” applying to Cornell University had to be a joke. The admissions staff stuck the application up on their bulletin board, where it languished for months until Ezra’s irate grandmother brought him to campus for an early-morning Saturday meeting with the admissions dean, where the embarrassed staff’s mistake was quickly realized.

Cornell University is unique among its peers by having a life trustee position, with an active trustee slot reserved for the eldest living descendant of the university’s founder. Only Cooper Union has a similar arrangement, though that school’s life trustee serves “ex gratia” (meaning “as a favor,” and not through legal obligation).

When Ezra Cornell turned 21 on Nov. 17, 1969, during his senior year, he became the university’s life trustee. He also effectively became Cornell’s first student trustee, as students did not yet serve on the board; student-elected trustees began serving regularly on the board in 1971.

Over the past five decades, Ezra Cornell has served on multiple board committees, making particular impact on the Buildings and Properties; Executive; Land Grant and Statutory College Affairs (today known as the Committee on University Relations, also as chair and vice-chair); and Trustee-Community Communications (also as chair) committees, where he helped shape and guide the physical campus as it continued to grow and evolved as a neighbor to the surrounding Ithaca community.

“Fifty years of commitment and engagement with Cornell University has been a great joy and tremendous honor for me,” Ezra Cornell told the Chronicle. “Cornell depends on the support of and service by its alumni and friends, and that involvement results in tremendous benefits to New York state, the nation and the world. I hope that our students and graduates know their lives can be meaningfully enriched by a lifetime of engagement, and devotion, in service and in support of Cornell University.”

A few highlights of Ezra Cornell’s board tenure:

  • In 1989, he served as one of the judges for the Cornell-in-Space contest, evaluating suggestions for what Cornell mementos should be launched aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. The final nominated items: microscopic gold reproductions of the university’s seal, a supercomputer circuit board – and founder Ezra Cornell’s then-158-year-old wedding socks.
  • He added his own letter to a new time capsule being laid in the cornerstone of the renovated Sage Hall in 1997, stating, in part: “It is my challenge to future Cornellians that we continue to be true to our traditions in matters of the heart and of the mind, and that we hold firm to our belief in the supreme value of freedom of inquiry.”
  • In 2007, Ezra helped preside over celebrations on campus marking what would have been the 200th birthday of his great-great-great grandfather, helping connect Ezra the founder and his values to the university in the 21st century; in 2015, he played an instrumental role as Cornell University marked the sesquicentennial of its charter with celebrations of the university’s mission.

“Ezra, you have been a steady inspiration, and a thoughtful, balanced and stellar example of a lifetime of dedication and service to us all,” Harrison said at the meeting. “You are the personification of not only the founder, but of the university – its idea, its mission and its promise.”

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