This column was written by Brian Crandall, who runs “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.”

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Let me start with a rhetorical question: What makes a college? Academics? Athletics? The physical facilities themselves? The logo?

The last one doesn’t really seem like it should be a contributing factor. But there have been claims that it made all the difference for Cornell, causing it to lose prestige in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It seems like the silliest thing in the world, but here’s the argument. In 1999, Cornell was 6th. By 2004, it had dropped to 14th. One of the reasons for this was brand image – a clunky website, bland brochures, and the logo. Quote: “Imagine a flag of the old Soviet Union: a field of red, and in the middle in plain white letters, Cornell.”

Most folks familiar with the 1999-2004 logo not-so-fondly describe it as the one that looks like a J.C. Penney knockoff (J. C. Penney had a similar logo from 2000-2006). Well, funny story about that. From the 2006 NPR interview:

Ms. HEATHER GRANTHAM (co-chair, Cornell image committee): “The company that designed that logo originally was the same company that designed the almost identical big red box for J.C. Penney. It’s not Cornell. It’s not Ivy, it doesn’t have that history, and so we really wanted to make that push to revert back to some form of the original crest.”

It must have been a busy week for the logo designer (who oddly enough, I can’t even find the name of online). Given the complaints above, and J.C. Penney’s market tumble, I’d be hesitant to hire this company.

The student-led Cornell Image committee made it a priority in the mid-2000s to bury that logo in favor of something more traditional and “Ivy” – the simplified emblem by Chermayeff and Geismar Inc. that Cornell still uses today.

It was hoped that it would make Cornell look less like Michigan and more like Harvard. The committee also had goals of reducing class sizes, limiting enrollment and increasing financial aid to minorities, all ways to game the rankings.

The new and improved logo

Some of those things may have happened (Cornell improved its financial aid, but enrollment has climbed), but rankings haven’t really changed much, hovering between 12th and 16th since the logo was changed at the end of 2004 (for the record, Cornell is currently ranked 15th by U.S. News & World Report).

The rankings the NPR interview used were cherry-picking anyway. Cornell spent most of the 1990s hovering between 10th-14th; 1999 was an anomalously good year.

So the change isn’t very effective on paper, but I do prefer the current logo to the old one.


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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.