June 12, 2007

The Ezra Files: University inauguration day, Oct. 7, 1868

The period from April 1865, when the bill for establishing Cornell University was passed in the New York Legislature, to October 1868, when the university opened its doors, was spent constructing the buildings now called Morrill Hall and White Hall (both part classroom, part dormitory), and Cascadilla Place to house teachers and students. The time also was spent recruiting faculty and buying equipment, including slop jars, napkins, coal, erasers and chalk.

On Oct. 6, 1868, candidates arrived in Ithaca to take entrance exams. The next day was the new university's inauguration day.

Students and citizens thronged to Library Hall downtown. According to reports, on one wall the motto of the new university was blazoned in green letters, and behind the speakers, "Cornell" and "White" appeared in large white letters against draped red flannel decorated with silver paper stars. Without the intent, the Cornell colors were thus established on this first Cornell banner.

Both Ezra Cornell and Andrew D. White were ill that day but roused themselves for the ceremony. Cornell gave a brief address, noting that the university was unfinished, and concluding with the university's newly adopted motto: "Finally, I trust we have laid the foundation of a University -- an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."

The governor of New York had declined to participate in inaugurating the controversial new institution, but the lieutenant governor administered the oath of office to President White and gave him the keys to the university and the Great Seal. White delivered the first inauguration address, detailing the ideas upon which the university would be based. Several other luminaries spoke, and then after a lunch, the throng climbed the hill to the new campus. Gathering at a rough wooden structure on the site of today's Uris Library, the group watched as nine bells, a gift of Jennie McGraw of Ithaca, were presented and rung.

The next day, the student applicants assembled on the steps of the Cornell Library downtown to hear the names of the 412 accepted students, the largest entering class admitted to any American college up to that time. The new students panted up Buffalo Street to Cascadilla Place, where many of them lived.

And Cornell was open for business.

-- Adapted by Susan S. Lang from the Web site "Invention and Enterprise: Ezra Cornell, a Nineteenth-Century Life."