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Newly unearthed letter affirms Cornell Founder's commitment to nonsectarianism

ITHACA, N.Y. -- For nearly 125 years, historians have assumed that a letter Cornell University Founder Ezra Cornell wrote and placed for posterity into the Sage Hall cornerstone had addressed the university's coeducational status. After all, the campus building was to house the Sage College for Women at the only coeducational institution of higher education in the eastern United States.

But historians could only assume; Cornell made no copy of his letter and showed it to no one at the time. No one but Cornell himself knew its contents. Until now.

Cornell President Hunter Rawlings revealed the contents of the newly unearthed letter today (March 14, 1997) at an open session of the Board of Trustees on the Cornell campus.

In the letter, addressed "To the Coming man & woman," Cornell writes,

On the occasion of laying the corner stone of the Sage College for women of Cornell University, I desire to say that the principle [sic] danger, and I say almost the only danger I see in the future to be encountered by the friends of education, and by all lovers of true liberty is that which may arise from sectarian strife.

From these halls, sectarianism must be forever excluded, all students must be left free to worship God, as their concience [sic] shall dictate, and all persons of any creed or all creeds must find free and easy access, and a hearty and equal welcome, to the educational facilities possessed by the Cornell University.

Coeducation of the sexes and entire freedom from sectarian or political preferences is the only proper and safe way for providing an education that shall meet the wants of the future and carry out the founders' idea of an Institution where "any person can find instruction in any study." I herewith commit this great trust to your care.

Rawlings invited Trustee Ezra Cornell, a direct lineal descendant of the Founder, to read the text of the letter to the assembled members of the Board of Trustees. "This letter changes interpretations of Cornell history," said Cornell. "People have assumed that whatever was in the letter had to do with the experiment of women's education, but this letter proves that the Founder assumed that women would be fine on this campus.

"His main concern," Cornell continued, "was that the university remain nonsectarian. This is as important an issue today as it was then."

The letter was unearthed with other artifacts on March 11. Construction workers doing renovations of Sage Hall delicately drilled open the Sage cornerstone, and University Archivist Elaine Engst retrieved the contents of the heavy lead box containing the letter's contents. The letter is dated May 15, 1873, the day it was laid in the cornerstone.

In his comments to the Board, Rawlings noted that at the time of the Sage Hall dedication, Cornell was widely under attack for its nonsectarian stand, not only by denominational institutions but also by a wide segment of the public that equated nonsectarianism with atheism. But the University had its supporters as well. Morris Bishop's A History of Cornell reports that only two months after the Sage Hall dedication, on August 12, Senator Justin S. Morrill of Vermont, the author of the historic Morrill Land Grant legislation, wrote to Cornell President Andrew Dickson White in response to an attack on Cornell by President James McCosh of Princeton: "There are three or four classical colleges who want to monopolize and direct the liberal education of the country." These colleges were aristocratic and selfish, Morrill continued, "without a particle of sympathy for the noble object of Mr. Cornell." (Bishop, p. 192)

As Rawlings said to today's Board of Trustees, the "great experiment" of our Founder was not coeducation -- that he took as a given -- but rather his commitment to the freedom of ideas, the freedom of access, the freedom of worship, and the freedom of political beliefs as the essential core of this new university.

Rawlings concluded by quoting from Cornell's remarks at the Sage dedication ceremony: "Again thanking our friends for the means that have enabled us to make this rapid progress in this matter of coeducation, and of placing the women of America upon the same footing with the men of America in regard to education, I will close, with the remark that the letter deposited in the corner stone addressed to the future man and woman, of which I have kept no copy, will relate to future generations the cause of the failure of this experiment, if it ever does fail, as I trust in God it never will."

"Cornell's perspective regarding the role of religion in public education was rather like that of the founding fathers' regarding religion and government," said H. Thomas Hickerson, director of the Division of Rare and Manuscripts Collections in Cornell's Kroch Library. "He thought it should be kept separate."

The cornerstone box was officially placed by Mrs. Henry W. Sage in the presence of assembled dignitaries, including Cornell and President Andrew D. White; the presidents of several other universities; and members of the Cornell faculty (which did not then include women). Also in the box were the university's first copies of the Register (akin to today's catalogue); a pamphlet of the university's laws and documents; a May 5, 1873, copy of the student weekly publication The Cornell Era; photos of Mr. and Mrs. Henry W. Sage; the Albany Evening Journal Almanac of 1873; and three newspapers, all dated May 14, 1873: The Ithaca Journal, The Ithaca Daily Democrat and The New York Times.

When its renovation is complete, Sage Hall will house the university's Johnson Graduate School of Management. The school's officials plan to place their own box of current memorabilia back into the cornerstone in the next few weeks, Engst said.

Hickerson stressed the lucky timing that enabled the Cornell community to learn of the letter's contents.

"Were it not for the renovation of Sage Hall currently under way, the cornerstone box would not have been accessible," he said. "We might not have learned what Cornell said in his letter for another 125 years. We are very grateful to John McKeown [director of business operations for the Johnson School] for taking the lead on organizing the opening of the cornerstone."

The lead box and its contents will be archived and put on display in the Cornell Library, Engst said, adding that Cornell's letter will ultimately be available on the World Wide Web. She said the letter will further enhance a collection of papers that have rare educational potentials.

"I have always seen the Ezra Cornell papers as a tremendous resource for learning about 19th-century American history," she said. "He was an incredible man, and his views at the time were extremely radical. Not only did he want women in higher education, he thought it was entirely ordinary that they should be. And, as this letter shows, he also felt strongly that the university should be open to people of all religious and political persuasions."

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