Cornell vs. Stanford: The rivalry goes far beyond the basketball court

Cornell vs. Stanford? What most immediately comes to mind are the U.S. News & World Report rankings of America's best colleges, not tomorrow's matchup of the two schools in the first round of the "Big Dance" that is the NCAA men's basketball tournament. (For the record, Stanford ranks fourth and Cornell 12th in the U.S. News rankings – not all that different, it turns out, from their respective third and 14th seeds in the NCAA South regional.)

One can understand the two schools competing against each other in student SAT scores, faculty Nobel laureates or annual fundraising. But big-time college basketball?

These are academically selective universities with graduation rates of around 90 percent, rates that their athletic programs – including basketball – typically meet or exceed.

As one who has spent considerable time at both Stanford and Cornell, I find their matchup on the hard court particularly intriguing. While not exactly Duke vs. North Carolina, theirs nonetheless is a multidimensional rivalry. In science, the strengths of the Stanford Linear Accelerator could be tested against those of the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source. In the humanities, one could imagine a terrific debate on, say, postmodernity between scholars affiliated with the Stanford Humanities Center and those associated with Cornell's Society for the Humanities. And who's No. 1 – Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences or Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences?

Even Cornell's and Stanford's respective athletic moniker and school color – Big Red vs. Cardinal – beg contestation. A "Let's Go Red" chant from the Cornell side is just as likely to encourage Stanford rooters for whom Cardinal is just another shade of red. Also, for what it's worth, both teams have inexplicable mascots – a tree in Stanford's case and a bear in Cornell's – that relate neither to their schools' names nor colors.

The truth of the matter is that rivalry between Cornell and Stanford comes naturally to institutions so closely connected historically. Both were founded – Cornell in 1865 and Stanford in 1885 – by industrial entrepreneurs who believed higher education should be accessible, nonsectarian, open to women as well to men and relevant to a rapidly growing and changing nation. If because of these qualities Cornell has been described as the first "truly American" university, Stanford was very much its younger sibling. Stanford's founding president, David Starr Jordan, was a Cornell alumnus who did much to bring Cornell's educational culture to the newer California institution. To the dismay of his alma mater, Jordan was particularly adept at enticing a number of then Cornell faculty members to abandon East Hill for "The Farm," as Stanford is still affectionately referred to by its nearest and dearest.

But what has this all to do with basketball? For a few days at least, everything. In the NCAA tourney (if not in U.S. News & World Report), a 14th seed sometimes actually comes out ahead of a third seed. Who knows, maybe it will be payback for those 19th-century faculty raids and the fact that Stanford now has both a larger endowment and athletic scholarships.

Mort Sosna is director of Cornell's Office of Foundation Relations.


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