Ithaca, N.Y. — Cornell professors Isaac Kramnick and Glenn Altschuler have published a history of the university from 1940 to the present.
The book, written in preparation for the university’s 150 year anniversary, contains a seemingly bottomless well of enriching anecdotes and surprising factoids, one coming after another in rapid succession.
The professors have agreed to let The Voice publish a series pulling out some of the facts that caught our attention. The book is called “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.”
We decided to start at the beginning of the book, in the 1940s and 1950s, when at Cornell …
1) Women were considered too weak to get into the Vet school
A vet school dean rejecting a female student’s application admitted that the student was qualified and competent enough to get in.
But, according to the authors, the dean thought women “lacked the physical strength to deal with large animals.”
“They can’t ride over rough country roads in the middle of the night,” Dean WA Hagan wrote a mother angered by her daughter’s rejection from the school in 1953, according to the book’s authors.
As the professors note, by 1994 over 90% of vet school students were women.
2) A Home Economics class had female students actually live with a baby
The professors write: “A core offering in the late 1940s was Homemaking Apartments 300, a course in which two instructors, five students, and a baby (recruited from an adoption agency) lived in a college-provided apartment for seven weeks.”
The class, according to a quote produced by the professors, had students who “did laundry, planned menus, cooked, cleaned, (and) had much needed experience in the care of a small child.”
3) The Industrial and Labor Relations school was derisively called the “little red schoolhouse”
Cornell’s then-new School of Industrial and Labor Relations was not nicknamed “I Love Reading,” as some call it today, but the “little red schoolhouse.”
The school was founded to help improve understanding between industry and labor. In Cold War-era America, that sounded to some awfully close to Communism.
The Chicago Tribune called it an “institutionalized hot bed of left-wing activity,” according to the book’s authors. The school’s first buildings were wooden barracks on the current Engineering quad.
Some called it the home the “cardboard Kremlin.”
4) Lynah Rink was built
A university building boom in the 1950s extended to athletic facilities as well.
James Lynah, class of 1905, was the school’s athletic director from 1935 to 1943. Lynah Rink’s construction made ice hockey a varsity sport for the first time in 10 years in 1957.
Of course, it’s remained so — and become part of the fabric of the Ithaca community — ever since.
The rink was inaugurated with a game between the New York Rangers and a minor league team from Rochester.
5) Humanities profs were already terrified of the eminence of the sciences
It’s a common trope these days that the humanities are in the process of being replaced by the more practical scientific disciplines.
That worry stretches back at least to Cornell in the 1940s, when then-President Edmund Ezra Day “worried that wartime science research had eclipsed the liberal arts …. in the frenzied wake of Sputnik, (Cornell President Mallott) had also warned against ‘the tendency to overemphasize science and engineering training to the neglect of the great fields of the humanities.’”
These fears led to the creation of the Society for the Humanities, the professors write.
Poet and English professor MH Abrams, who earlier this year was honored by President Obama at the White House, was chosen as the society’s first chair.
6) A beloved Cornell zoologist was interrogated by McCarthy’s committee
A Cornell professor and zoologist who taught a popular course was brought in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953.
Marcus Singer had been in a Marxist study group as a Harvard PhD student years earlier. In front of the committee, however, Singer spoke “eloquently about his disillusion with Marxism and his realization that his ‘basic loyalties were and always will be with my country.’”
Singer was found in contempt by the committee nonetheless for refusing to name the other study group members, according to professors Kramnick and Altschuler. He was later indicted for contempt of Congress by a federal grand jury.
Despite opposition from The Cornell Daily Sun, President Deane Malott put Singer on administrative leave. Singer was later sentenced to three months in jail.
Similarly, a historian named “Knight Biggerstaff” (really!) involved with the Rockefeller Foundation’s efforts to create a Chinese studies program at Cornell was questioned by Senator McCarthy.
7) But Cornell’s president was a ‘Socratic gadfly’ who defended free speech
Edmund Ezra Day, Cornell’s president from 1937 to 1949, was a “Socratic gadfly” who the authors say was described by his contemporaries as liking “’to shock, unsettle and disturb. He disliked complacency and satisfaction with routine.’”
Day even “challenged an English professor with, ‘What are you trying to do? What are the educational outcomes of studying literature?,’” the professors write. (Imagine if Skorton said that!)
Day turned down a post in postwar Germany that was accepted by Harvard’s president and was generally respected by the faculty as a defender of free speech.
In particular, he was remembered for his “courage in the face of claims that Cornell leaned too far left,” according to the book.
Day’s more conservative replacement Deane Malott, it’s fair to say, offered less protection for those facing similar attacks.
8) First NAACP chapter in Ithaca begins, fights discrimination
“An Ithaca restaurant’s refusal in 1946 to serve dinner to two black students led to the formation of a small but active Ithaca chapter of the NAACP,” Altschuler and Kramnick say.
“…The Ithaca NAACP disclosed, and alone opposed, the minstrel show held at the College of Agriculture’s annual Farm and Home Week in 1951.”
The professors write that a Cornell Sun poll in 1952 found that 33 percent of students did not want a black roommate. Some Ithaca landlords were criticized for not renting to black tenants. Jews similarly faced discrimination in admissions and housing, the authors write.
In the 1950s, two students decided to establish an “interracial, interreligious co-op … with the credo ‘All men are brothers.’”
Watermargin exists to this day.
9) Frat death leads to fight over university rules on student drinking
In 1957, a Cornell student fell 15 feet off a Phi Kappa Tau fraternity porch at 5:30 a.m. and fractured his skull. He was later pronounced dead.
Cornell’s president at the time responded furiously by banning all parties on or off campus from 3 to 7 a.m. on Saturdays and 4 to 8 a.m. on Sundays.
What the professors describe as “open warfare” broke out when President Malott then said Cornell was considering banning unchaperoned parties off-campus.
10) Really, ‘open warfare?’ Well …
Students were furious about the new rules.
“No amount of legislation is ever going to prevent society — much less students — from ‘necking,’” an editorial in the Cornell Sun said.
Wrote one student to the student newspaper: “It is time for the University to abandon its ill-conceived and non-purposeful attempt to impose moral ‘standards’ on its student body.”
A massive crowd — gathered in part by The Cornell Sun’s editor — descended on Day Hall, throwing eggs at the building and chanting “We want Malott shot,” according to Altschuler and Kramnick.
Things got even crazier next as the flares and torches came out.
Someone decided that the crowd should march on President Malott’s house in Cayuga Heights. He happened to be there with his wife and the chair of the board of trustees.
Kramnick and Altschuler say that nearly 1,000 students swarmed the president’s house.
They write: “A leaderless throng of almost one thousand students arrived at Malott’s house, trampling the lawn and landscaping, setting off a smoke bomb, and throwing eggs and stones, all the while chanting ‘Go back to Kansas.’”
Appearing on his front steps, Malott told them, ‘This University will never be swayed by mob rule.’ Obscenities were shouted at him, and some windows were smashed.”
The crowd eventually dispersed, but tensions would linger … well into the 60s …