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Ezra Cornell's legacy provides theme for trustee meetings

With the Cornell Board of Trustees and University Council on campus Oct. 18-20 for their annual meeting, a variety of events for their members illustrate the persistence of Ezra Cornell's guiding vision.

For example, in a presentation titled "Can We Save the World," development sociology professor Max John Pfeffer and Ronald Seeber, vice provost for land grant affairs, look at how Cornell's public-service mission has evolved and expanded in subject matter and geographical reach since the Morrill Act was passed 150 years ago. That act established Cornell as New York state's land-grant institution and encouraged Ezra Cornell's aspirations for a university that offered practical education.

"Ezra Cornell had a vision for a comprehensive and practical university dedicated to all forms of intellectual inquiry," says Pfeffer. "Today his vision is fulfilled through a land-grant mission that is dynamic in exploring new areas of scholarly endeavor. The effectiveness of the land-grant mission demands that it be inclusive of diverse areas of expertise to address a wide range of societal needs. And it remains practical by addressing the needs of stakeholders worldwide through programs that integrate research, teaching and outreach."

In "Cold War Studies: A New Initiative at Cornell," Chen Jian, the Michael J. Zack Chair of History of U.S.-China Relations, and professor Fredrik Logevall of the history department discuss the Cornell Cold War Project, a new scholarly project that will take advantage of an explosion of scholarship resulting from mass archival openings. Quaker-born Ezra Cornell, a curmudgeonly pacifist, might well approve of study with the potential to reduce conflict.

"This is a very exciting time to be doing research in Cold War studies, as archives open up all over the world and as scholars are able to answer many of the crucial questions about the conflict," said Logevall. "Moreover, the Cold War is still with us in many ways, and thus this work has tremendous contemporary resonance. Many of the issues that dominate international affairs in this first decade of the 21st century have their roots in the Cold War era. Certainly this new initiative fits in with Ezra Cornell's vision of what the university ought to be, a place where faculty and students of varying backgrounds are doing exciting research on issues of pressing scholarly and public concern."

In "The Social and Political Importance of Access to Higher Education," Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment, leads a discussion between Davydd J. Greenwood, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology, and Pamela S. Tolbert, chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior in the ILR School. They explore how access to higher education should be defined and measured, and look at how educational institutions can help shape the political and social landscape of the world.

"There's clearly a connection between our discussion at the Trustee-Council session and Ezra Cornell's vision of the university," says Tolbert. "As the costs of college education continue to go up, it's becoming harder and harder for people without substantial resources to go to college. One piece of evidence on this point comes from a recent study that found that only 3 percent of the students at the top 140 universities came from families whose incomes were in the bottom quartile; 75 percent came from families in the top quartile. Cornell does the best it can to address this issue, but I don't think it can be handled on an institution-by-institution basis; it's an issue for national policy, in my view."

Historian Morris Bishop credits Ezra Cornell's acceptance of the ideas of his first president, the far better educated Andrew D. White, with opening the young university, early in its history, to women and blacks. In Cornell's early years, women and minority students endured many obstacles, but they could gain admission to what was becoming a great university.

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