In 1966 trustee Les Severinghaus '21 challenged then Cornell President James A. Perkins: "It is time for Cornell to lead its alumni not by the hand, but by the mind."
These words inspired Curt Reis and Ernie Stern, both Class of 1956, to propose an intellectually rigorous continuing education program for Cornell alumni to bring them back to the hill. Launched in July 1968, it has hosted almost 50,000 participants.
Now, Cornell's Adult University (CAU) celebrates its 40th anniversary this July as Cornell alumni, friends and others gather on campus for CAU's summer programs of academic lectures, discussion, cultural events and recreation.
CAU Director Catherine Penner '68 believes the program created "a chance for alums to be reinvigorated by the intellectual dimensions of the university" and to broaden Cornellians' connections to the university beyond "tailgate parties and football games."
Penner said the program, which welcomes alumni as well as other adults, remains focused on "a return to the campus, living in the dorms, being a student again."
During CAU's four weeklong sessions, adult students reside in Court Hall and take meals at Appel Commons. Courses range from political lectures, such as this year's "The U.S. and the Middle East," taught by Ross Brann, professor of Near Eastern studies, classes on Jane Austen, digital photography, sustainability and writing nonfiction to workshops on drawing and sculpting, cooking and Swedish massage, golf, tennis and kayaking.
CAU's off-campus study tours also take alumni on trips around the world. Later this year, for example, trips will take alumni to the Mississippi River, the Greek islands and Patagonia, Chile. Each course is designed by a Cornell faculty member who leads the tour. Especially popular courses, such as those on London theater history and a family program in the Galapagos Islands, are offered every other year.
"People know that they are going to have an academically rich program that is led by an expert and a scholar" during overseas courses, said CAU youth and family program coordinator Barbara Hopkins.
Each weekly summer session hosts 150-200 adults; alumni often bring spouses and families. Youth programs for children and grandchildren ages 3 to 16 provide exploration, activities and child care until 11 p.m., while adults focus on their courses.
Many Cornell faculty members are eager to participate in on- and off-campus courses because CAU students bring with them not only great enthusiasm and questions, but life experiences and perspectives, often beyond the scope of undergraduates and graduate students, said Penner.
Many children of CAU participants, she added, fall in love with the campus and later apply to Cornell. Hopkins notes the summer sessions are "a good opportunity for kids, as they're growing up, coming back summer after summer, to really become comfortable and familiar with what is a very large and complex university."
The 2008 CAU summer session runs July 6 to Aug. 2.
Laura Janka '09 is a writer intern with the Cornell Chronicle.