Arguably Ithaca’s most famous institution, Cornell University is 151 years old this year. With more than 260 major buildings on 2,300 acres housing over 100 academic departments, Cornell’s campus is loaded with traditions and personality. As the pace of Ithaca life quickens with the start of a new school year, it’s a good time to look at some of the more interesting aspects of life on East Hill.
There is no experience more emblematic of Cornell life than hearing the chimes. Housed near the top of the iconic McGraw Tower, the 21 bells are probably the most frequently played set of chimes on any American college campus. First rung in October 1868, they have been used to mark the hours and for daily concerts ever since. Student “chimes masters” perform a regular program of three concerts daily while classes are in session, and a modified schedule during exams and breaks. The concerts are open to the public, or at least those willing to climb the 161 stairs to the top of the tower, and could include selections as wide-ranging as the theme of a Schubert string quartet to “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen. Every morning concert since 1869 has begun with the “Cornell Changes” (also known as the “Jennie McGraw Rag”). The chimes masters’ goal is to play its 549 notes as quickly as possible. The Cornell “Alma Mater” is played at the midday concert, and the “Cornell Evening Song” at the end of the evening concert.
It’s not all bells and ivy, though. Since 1979, students have played soccer, football and lacrosse on Alumni Fields 40 feet above Cornell’s own particle accelerator. The 768-meter Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR), built as an electron-positron collider, is now used as an x-ray source for a state-of-the-art x-ray facility, known as the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) and is also used as a test-bed accelerator to explore the latest accelerator physics technologies and to produce X-ray light for experiments in biology, materials science, and physics. Affectionately known as the “world’s coolest microscope,” the synchrotron attracts some 1,000 scientists from around the world every year, with a staff of 150 Cornell scientists and engineers providing support.
Though no stranger to racial identity politics through the years, Cornell’s early history was notable for its support of racial and ethnic diversity. In his address at the university’s inauguration, Andrew Dickson White said, “I believe myself justified in stating that the authorities of the university … have no right to reject any man on account of race.” Students of color from the Caribbean came as early as 1869, and the first African-American students to graduate enrolled in 1886. Currently, 38 percent of undergraduates self-identify as being African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, or Native American. Alpha Pi Alpha, the first intercollegiate African American fraternity in the United States, was founded at Cornell in 1906.
Cornell can justly claim the classic book The Elements of Style, the writer’s staple that urges the excision of needless words, explains subject-verb agreement and savors the active voice. First published in 1918 by Cornell English professor William Strunk, Jr. (Class of 1896), it was expanded and updated by his former student E.B. White (Class of 1921) in 1959, and has sold more than 10 million copies over the years.
There are somewhere around 245,000 living Cornell alumni, none more distinguished than Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Class of 1954). Having studied a wide range of liberal arts undergraduate courses, she recalls Cornell as “a school blessed with a fabulous faculty.”
Among Ginsburg’s professors was her European literature professor, Vladimir Nabokov, who lived in something like 11 different houses in Ithaca between 1948 and 1959 (mostly other professors’ homes). He is said to have written most of Lolita at 802 East Seneca Street, having listened on Ithaca city buses for ‘school-girl dialogue’ to use in the book. The story is that during a moment of creative frustration while living at that address, his wife dissuaded him from incinerating the Lolita manuscript.
Cornell has a history of being in the forefront on both sides of political issues. In the 1960s, Cornell had the third largest SDS chapter in the country. At the same time, Paul Wolfowitz (Class of 1965), the campus Doug Niedermeyer, organized the Committee for Critical Support of the U.S. in Vietnam.
This election cycle, many people’s favorite iconoclastic pundit is Bill Maher (Class of 1978). Of course, there are those who adhere more to the worldview of Donald Trump-champion Ann Coulter (Class of 1984).
In recent years Cornell athletics has been known for its hockey, basketball, lacrosse and wrestling programs. During his career, Cornell wrestler Kyle Dake (Class of 2013) was the first athlete in history to win NCAA titles in four different weight classes.
Few but the old-timers know that during the first half of Cornell’s history, football was the undisputed king. Football has deep roots on the hill, the school having played its first intercollegiate game in 1887. (They lost to Union College 24-10, playing where Day Hall stands today.) Legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner coached the team during two stints in the 1890s and 1900s, and by 1915, playing on brand-new Schoellkopf Field for the first time, the team earned the first of their five (yes, five) national championships, winning all nine games that season.
The high-water mark for Cornell football was probably in 1940, when the program was ranked #1 in the country, games could command banner headlines in New York City newspapers, and the crescent at Shoellkopf field would be packed from stem to stern for home games. Still, the program has a venerable history, claiming over six hundred games won, 150 All-American players, and eleven players and seven coaches elected to the National Football Hall of Fame over the course of 125 seasons.
And so, as Cornellians new and returning come back to Ithaca, it’s appropriate to reflect on some of the noteworthy and interesting aspects of the university’s culture. We can all bask a little bit in the reflected glory. §