Ithaca, NY. Cornell University. Ezra Cornell, the great, great, great-grandson of the Ezra Cornell who was the founder of the University, describes it as “the first truly American university, rich in traditions of learning, teaching, service, and doing the right things for the right reasons.” Have you seen the Santa Monica City Hall posters with the motto “We do the right thing right”? Perhaps a Cornellian, who made their way to Santa Monica, brought their motto to us? It expresses a Santa Monica spirit and it is one we share with Cornell University.
I made my way through winter airports to give a talk on Civil Rights at the Alice Cook House at Cornell in celebration of Black History Month. The campus was covered with snow. In stark relief in the snowy landscape, Gothic and neoclassical architecture co-exist with the modernism of the I.M. Pei designed Art Museum, the Richard Meier (a Cornell graduate)-designed Life Sciences Center, and the, under construction, Rem Koolhaus-designed addition to the Architecture School.
As I met and talked with students, I thought of the first Ezra Cornell: Senator, Farmer, Carpenter, Telegraph Investor, Quaker, and of his commitment to “Any Person, Any Study.” The university was inaugurated on October 7, 1868, with an enrollment of 412 men. Two years later, Cornell admitted women students, the first to do so among what came to be known as the Ivy League. Today, in 2010, walking the campus, you see a visual testament to the success of the school’s commitment to its inclusionary ideals.
Associate Provost Doris Davis has been a key to this success. “Policies that support our mission include our need-blind admissions policy that ensures that a student’s financial circumstances are not taken into consideration when we review a student’s application for admission. We award financial aid to students based on one factor, and one factor alone: because they need it. These admissions and financial aid policies have allowed us to be successful in enrolling students who are academically talented and from all racial/ethnic, geographic, and religious backgrounds.”
Professor Ross Brann, in thinking about today’s students and his own student days, says, “Our students now are far more diverse than back in the day and that alone is all for the good; they are arguably smarter and certainly savvier than we were. If at times they appear to be jaded and cynical, they inhabit a world that is surely more complex than ours was and the deep interconnections between political, economic and media elites has its way of discouraging activism. And yet…I encounter so many students committed to various forms of social change. It is heartening to observe them readying to become leaders in education, service, non-governmental organizations and more.”
Brother and sister graduates from New Roads School, Sammy and Ruby Perlmutter, along with Samohi and Crossroads students, are among the Santa Monicans at Cornell. Sammy, an editor at the independent student paper, the Cornell Sun, talks about his personal expression of his political views and principles. “Personally, beyond frequent discussions with friends and intellectual conversations in classes, I express my opinions through my writing at The Sun. This has helped to forge my own viewpoints and also become highly critical of all political talk and policy.”
A historic Cornell venue for the expression of political talk, philosophy and ideas is the Sage Chapel. The non-sectarian Chapel has a mosaic mural behind the altar paying homage to the nine muses of arts and science and to Plato’s philosopher king. New to the Chapel is a stained glass window honoring the civil rights martyrs James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Schwerner was a Cornellian.
I stood on the bridge over Cascadilla Creek at one of Cornell’s famous Gorges and thought of the first woman Architecture graduate in the 1880’s, Michael Schwerner in the 1960’s, and the students I had met. Water still ran in the icicle-covered gorge. I felt a bond with past and future students from knowing we shared the inspiration of this natural beauty and the knowledge of the values and ideals of the University, carefully carried throughout succeeding generations.
Ezra Cornell states, “President Lincoln was born in 1809 and my great, great, great grandfather was born in 1807. He supported Lincoln, was a Republican and attended Lincoln’s inauguration. Both men recognized the challenges of their day and were determined to make a difference that would benefit the nation.” I believe the students I’ve met, in Santa Monica and at Cornell, share that determination.
Mirror Contributing Writeropinion@smmirror.com