Ithaca, N.Y. — A loyal reader alerted us today to a Cornell Daily Sun story from April 23, 1928, with the following headline: “Ezra Cornell Was Once Requested to Have Cornell College’s Name Changed.”

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The story recounts that Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., received a letter on May 20, 1870, from Pastor M.E. Church, of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

Church recounted the history of Cornell College in Iowa, which was was named after W.W. Cornell (who is a distant relative of Ezra Cornell, according to the Iowa school).

“In due time a fine building was erected, a very liberal charter was obtained, and the school is prospering grandly,” Church wrote of Cornell College.

“The college is happily named, and has a fine reputation, now of nearly fifteen years. But we as ministers, publishers, and journalists frequently are entangled with Cornell College, Iowa, and Cornell University, N.Y.”

The solution? Church suggested that the Cornell in Iowa might change its name “for a consideration, in the shape of a donation of scholarship.”

Church seemed to himself recognize the strangeness of the request. “I suppose nothing of the kind has ever been suggested to you before,” he writes to Ezra Cornell.

Ezra Cornell, however, would have nothing of the bargain.

As The Sun article from the 1920s points out, Ezra Cornell wrote a “characteristically pointed” response, which was sent 10 days later on May 30, 1870:

“When I founded the Cornell University at Ithaca I had not heard of the existence of the ‘Cornell College’ in Iowa.

I have no fear that the latter will ever be mistaken for Cornell University, and cannot consent that its reputation shall be tarnished ‘for a consideration,’ or the laurels of its founder purchased with my money.’”

A few things that we love about this little glimpse into history:

1 — Ezra Cornell’s surefire confidence that Cornell University would never be mistaken for the Iowa school.

2 — His use of scare quotes when referring to “Cornell College.”

3 — The refusal to let Cornell University’s reputation be tarnished for the sake of a diplomatic nicety.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.