Cornell University Ithaca: A Farmer’s Contribution To American Education


University education is a byproduct of university system and a strong foundation for societal development. This is because the system has three main functions or pillars for the societal development. The functions are teaching, research and community service. Knowledge is quickly acquired through learning and teaching is the instrument for learning. Research is a systematic activity undertaken for many reasons such as increasing the stock of knowledge; discovering new information on the existing happenings, problems and solutions identification, increasing system efficiency among others. In addition to teaching and research, which are other ways of serving the society, university is expected to render community service using pool of intellectual capacities at its disposal to solve societal problems. It is within this context that establishment of university is seen as a giant contribution to the educational development of a nation.  This is a story of Cornell University Ithaca, New York and its founder; a farmer – Senator, Ezra Cornell.

Cornell University was established in 1865 at Ithaca. Its establishment was the result of authorisation by the New York State (NYS) Senate as the state’s land grants institution. A farmer, Ezra Cornell offered his farm in Ithaca, New York as a site and princely cash amounting to $500,000 from his personal fortune as an initial endowment. As part of patriotic and historic effort, a fellow senator and experienced educationist, Andrew Dickson White became the first president (equivalent of Vice Chancellor) of the university. During the next three years, White oversaw the construction of the first two buildings and traveled to attract students and faculty. Thus, White is considered as a cofounder of Cornell University. The university was inaugurated on October 7, 1868, and 412 students were admitted the next day.

Right from conception, Ezra Cornell’s vision for the University of his Dream was very clear, “I would (have) found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study – Ezra Cornell, 1868”. Ezra Cornell (January 11, 1807 – December 9, 1874) was a man with many trades; an American businessman, politician, philanthropist in addition to being a successful farmer. He was the founder of Western Union and he also served as president of the New York Agriculture Society as well as one of the famous senators of his time.

Since then, Cornell University developed to become a giant institution with a lot of technological innovations and breakthroughs through research works within and outside its campus. For example, in 1883 it was one of the first university campuses to use electricity from a water-powered dynamo to light the grounds. Since 1894, Cornell has included colleges that are state funded and fulfill statutory requirements, it has also administered research and agricultural extension activities that have been jointly funded by state and federal matching programs.

From 2000, Cornell University expanded its international programs to other continents, for instance in 2004, the university opened the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. It established partnerships with institutions in India, Singapore, and the People’s Republic of China. Former president, Jeffrey S. Lehman described the university, with its high international profile, a “transnational university”. On March 9, 2004, Cornell and Stanford University laid the cornerstone for a new ‘Bridging the Rift Center’ to be built and jointly operated for education on the Israel–Jordan border.

Administratively, Cornell University is decentralised, with its colleges and schools exercising wide autonomy. Each defines its own academic programs, operates its own admissions and advising programs, and confers its own degrees. The only university-wide requirements for a degree program are to pass a swimming test, take two physical education courses, and satisfy a writing requirement. A handful of inter-school academic departments offer courses in more than one college. All academic departments are affiliated with at least one college; the last department without such an affiliation, the Cornell Africana Studies and Research Centre, merged with the Arts College in July 2011. In 2015, Cornell ranked 8th domestically and 10th internationally in the CWUR rankings. For 2016-17, Cornell ranked 16th in the QS World University Rankings and 19th in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The university ranked 10th in the 2013 Business Insider Best Colleges in America ranking, 15th in the 2016 U.S. News & World Report National Universities ranking, and 13th globally in an academic ranking of world universities by Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2015. Cornell was ranked 27th nationally in The Washington Monthly’s 2016 ranking of universities’ contributions to research, community service, and social mobility. Cornell’s Centre for Advanced Computing was one of the five original centres of the NSF’s Supercomputer Centres Program. The university’s School of Hotel Administration ranked No. 1 in world on March 8, 2016.

Cornell Plantations, located adjacent to the Ithaca campus, is used for conservation research as well as for recreation by Cornellians. In the basement of Goldwin Smith Hall, researchers in the Dendrochronology Lab determine the age of archaeological artifacts found at digs.

Research is a central element of the university’s mission; in 2009, Cornell spent $671 million on science and engineering research and development, the 16th highest in the United States. Thus, Cornell, as a research university, is ranked fourth in the world in producing the largest number of graduates who go on to pursue PhDs in engineering or the natural sciences at American institutions, as well as fifth in the world in producing graduates who pursue PhDs at American institutions in any field.

The achievements of the university in research became possible because of its dedicated staff and huge funds being expended on its research programs; example, for the 2004–05 fiscal year, the university spent $561.3 million on research. The fund comes largely from federal sources, with federal investment amounting to $381.0 million. The federal agencies; the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Science Foundation contributed 51.4 percent and 30.7 percent of all federal investment to the university. Another breakthrough of Cornell reputation is receiving patents. It was on the top-10 list of U.S. universities receiving the most patents in 2003, and was one of the nation’s top five institutions in forming start-up companies. During the period of 2004–05, Cornell received 200 invention disclosures, filed 203 U.S. patent applications, completed 77 commercial license agreements, and distributed royalties of more than $4.1 million to Cornell units and inventors.

Another successful story of Cornell is the record of alumni. Cornell alumni are known for their accomplishments in public, professional, and corporate life. Many prominent personalities across the globe are alumni of Cornell. Prominent among the top public servants in many countries were Lee Teng-hui who was the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen was elected to be the first female president of Taiwan, Mario García Menocal was president of Cuba, Jamshid Amuzegar was prime minister of Iran. Others were Hu Shih who was a Chinese reformer and representative to the United Nations, Janet Reno was the first female United States Attorney General, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg serves on the Supreme Court. Alumnus David Starr Jordan was the founding president of Stanford University, and M. Carey Thomas founded Bryn Mawr College. Additionally, alumnus Matt Urban holds the distinction as the most decorated serviceman in United States history.

Still on Alumni in the business World; they include Citigroup CEO, Sanford Weill, Goldman Sachs Group Chairman, Stephen Friedman, Kraft Foods CEO, Irene Rosenfeld and Autodesk CEO, Carl Bass. Others are Aetna CEO, Mark Bertolini, S.C. Johnson & Son CEO, Fisk Johnson, Cargill Chairman, Warren Staley, Chevron Chairman, Kenneth T. Derr, Sprint Nextel CEO, Dan Hesse, Burger King founder, James McLamore, founder, David Litman. This list is endless!

In medicine, some of the Alumni were inventors; Robert Atkins developed the Atkins Diet, Henry Heimlich developed the Heimlich maneuver, Wilson Greatbatch invented the pacemaker, James Maas coined the term “power nap”, and C. Everett Koop served as Surgeon General of the United States. Thomas Midgley, Jr. invented Freon, Jon Rubinstein are credited with the development of the iPod, and Robert Tappan Morris developed the first computer worm on the Internet. Eight Cornellians have served as NASA astronauts; Steve Squyres is the principal investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. In aerospace, also, Otto Glasser directed the USAF program that developed the SM-65 Atlas, the World’s first operational Intercontinental ballistic missile. Bill Nye is well known as “The Science Guy”.

This is by no means a giant contribution to the university education by the founder, Cornell and his co-founder, White. They permanently imprinted their names in the history of American university education with unlimited influence on the global technological development. Prominent Nigerians can take cue by investing in Nigerian university education without a goal of profit making. The history can start today.


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