Martha E. Pollack drew upon Cornell history to illuminate the present in her inaugural address on August 25, 2017, following her installation as the university’s 14th president.
Quoting a speech given by Cornell historian Carl Becker in 1940, Pollack called on universities to “maintain and promote the humane and rational values” that preserve democratic society. To that end, she said, “Together we will sustain and enhance Cornell’s academic distinction, we will ensure a culture of educational verve, and we will do the difficult but essential work needed to fulfill our civic responsibilities”—including standing up for knowledge and truth, protecting freedom of speech, and creating a Cornell community that is diverse, inclusive, and egalitarian.
The ceremony on the Arts Quad began with a speech of thanksgiving in the Cayuga language, with English translation, and included remarks by Dartmouth College President Philip Hanlon, President Pollack’s longtime mentor and colleague. All four of Cornell’s living former presidents (Frank H. T. Rhodes, Hunter R. Rawlings III, Jeffrey S. Lehman, and David J. Skorton) attended.
Following the ceremony, a large crowd enjoyed a street fair on the Arts Quad, with many kinds of food, exhibits, hands-on activities, and performances of music and dance.
The inaugural events began the preceding day with a Festival of Scholarship, with President Pollack among the crowd conversing with students from across the university who presented their research and scholarship.
That evening an academic symposium spoke to a concern that President Pollack would express in her address the next day: identifying and defending reliable knowledge. Faculty members from multiple disciplines discussed the role of truth in their fields and in society.
On a warm and sunny September day, the Arts Quad was bright with red carpet and red robes for the installation of Elizabeth Garrett, who gave her inaugural address in front of the iconic statue of Ezra Cornell. The university’s 13th president spoke of “the spirit of Cornell that frames our journey” and stressed the importance of the faculty as the foundation of the university; students as partners in the voyage of discovery; and the university’s growing presence in New York City as a source of opportunity.
“The recruitment, development and retention of the best faculty remain our paramount priorities,” Garrett said. She also spoke of focusing on the residential undergraduate experience, defining as a community the shared intellectual experience all Cornell students should encounter. And she pointed to the opportunities inherent in the university’s dual footprint, in Ithaca and New York City, urging all of Cornell’s colleges to connect with Cornell Tech in new collaborations.
Following the ceremony, the university hosted a picnic on the Ag Quad, inviting Ithaca citizens as well as the campus community. The Cornell Dairy prepared 450 gallons of its newest ice cream flavor, 24 Garrett Swirl.
Later in the day, the new president—the first woman president in Cornell history—moderated a panel on democracy and inequality, bringing together eminent faculty to explore how inequality interacts with immigration, access to education and health care, job creation and economic opportunity.
In a ceremony incorporating poetry, instrumental music and song, David J. Skorton was inaugurated on September 7, 2006, as president of “that most improbable and most magnificent of compounds: Cornell University.” During his address, Skorton announced five propositions that outlined his vision for the university: strengthening the undergraduate experience; optimizing the employee environment; consolidating relationships among Cornell’s disparate campuses; promoting the arts, humanities and social sciences; and using Cornell’s land-grant and outreach missions to better serve global needs. “Whether the focus is on diversity and the campus climate or on Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York State, the United States or the global community,” he said, “Cornell must look ever outward, ever more broadly.”
In keeping with Skorton’s themes, other inaugural events included a symposium, “Culture, Identity and Conflict in World Affairs,” with keynote speaker Robert Kagan, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and well-known author. Two Cornell professors responded, and audience members engaged the panelists in a spirited debate.
At the dinner following the inauguration ceremony, Board of Trustees chair Peter Meinig surprised the new president by handing him his own flute and asking him to perform. Accompanied by a student jazz band, Skorton improvised a vibrant solo to rousing applause.
The only alumnus in Cornell’s history to become its president gave his first inauguration speech on October 12, 2003, at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in Doha, Qatar, declaring that Ezra Cornell’s American university had “matured into the transnational university of the future.” His second inauguration speech, delivered at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City three days later, focused on the need for cross-disciplinary research and collaboration to further the life sciences. Returning to Ithaca for his formal inauguration in Barton Hall on October 16, 2003, with Cornell alumna and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in attendance, Lehman introduced several questions that would become part of his ongoing Call to Engagement to the campus community – “fundamental questions of who we are and what we should be.”
Inauguration Day began for Lehman with a visit downtown, to the Tompkins County Public Library, where he spoke with community leaders and unveiled a library exhibit commemorating the interrelationship between Ithaca’s “town and gown.” Back on the hill, ceremonies included speeches by Indian entrepreneur N.R. Narayana Murthy and world-renowned architect Richard Meier. An otherworldly highlight of the day was a telephone call from astronaut Edward Lu ’84, who happened to be on board the International Space Station at the time.
In his inaugural address in Barton Hall, October 19, 1995, Hunter R. Rawlings III sounded a clarion call to members of the Cornell community, inviting them to join him in composing a new Cornell, “a Cornell we can now only imagine,” he said. Rawlings charged Cornellians with the task of helping to reinvigorate the campus community by focusing on the university’s central mission: “The cultivation of the human mind for the sake of the individual, together with its moral improvement for the sake of society, remains the university’s fundamental reason for being,” he told the audience of more than 5,000. And he emphasized that students are the soul of that enterprise. “In the future,” he said, “I hope we will use our ingenuity to find new ways of drawing all students closer to the heart of our intellectual enterprise, and thus closer to the community as a whole.” Rawlings was joined on the platform by four past presidents of the university: Deane W. Malott, James A. Perkins, Dale R. Corson, and Frank H.T. Rhodes — a circumstance that Cornell Board of Trustees Chairman Stephen H. Weiss described as “a tribute to the longevity that obviously comes with the Cornell presidency….”
Three presidents emeriti (Deane W. Malott, James A. Perkins, and Dale R. Corson) were among more than 6,000 guests gathered in Barton Hall on November 10, 1977, for Frank H.T. Rhodes’s inauguration. On the previous day, Carl Sagan, the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences, moderated a panel on “Spaceflight and the Future.” In his inaugural address, “… And Perhaps Cornell,” Rhodes enumerated his goals as president: “We must reaffirm, first, the power of reason; second, the strength of community; third, the priority of research; and, fourth, the wider partnership of Cornell.” He emphasized that major research universities are “a national asset, whose well-being is of paramount importance to the nation’s welfare, security, prosperity, and health … the great reservoir on which the fulfillment of all our hopes and larger social aspirations must draw … humankind’s best hope against the stark alternatives of the future.”
Dale R. Corson had been at Cornell for 23 years, rising from assistant professor of physics to provost, before he was chosen to be the university’s president. His naming as president was marked with a dinner at the time of the announcement, and his formal investiture took place at commencement ceremonies in Barton Hall on June 8, 1970. In keeping with the tenor of the times, student demonstrators briefly disrupted the ceremonies. In his formal address, Corson said: “The last several years have been increasingly critical and traumatic for the country as a whole and for the universities. Cornell has been no exception. I would … express the hope that all of us may learn increasingly to respond to these problems out of a deep sense of our common destiny.”
The inauguration of James A. Perkins as president of Cornell was signified by the first presentation of the university mace and baton as symbols of authority by the chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees. Previously, the symbols of authority presented to the new president were the university charter and seal. The formal ceremony was held in Bailey Hall on the morning of October 4, 1963, with remarks presented by Dr. John W. Gardner, president of the Carnegie Corp. of New York.
In keeping with the pattern of events that took place at the university during and just after the war years, Deane Waldo Malott was inaugurated in an informal hour-long program held “within the Cornell family” on September 19, 1951. Some 10,000 spectators watched as he was installed as president in an 11 a.m. ceremony on the Library Slope, after which Governor Thomas E. Dewey presented an address at a luncheon in Statler Hall.
In his inaugural address presented on October 8, 1937, Edmund Ezra Day detailed the ideals on which Cornell University had been established, quoting extensively from Andrew Dickson White’s autobiography and noting that it was almost 68 years to the day since White’s inauguration. On the eve of World War II, he declared: “The time has passed when it can be assumed that social well-being will flow automatically from self-interested individual enterprise. If democratic institutions are to be preserved and individual liberty remain our proud possession, the citizen must recognize his obligation to make his life add to the common weal.” Day was the last Cornell president, until Hunter Rawlings, to receive the seal and charter as symbols of authority.
Livingston Farrand was inaugurated at the dawn of the “Roaring Twenties” on a day of drizzling rain. In his inaugural address on October 20, 1921, in Bailey Hall, he spoke about the crisis in Europe, with special regard for the plight of Poland and the need for the university to recognize its “international responsibility.” The cornerstone of the Baker Laboratory of Chemistry was laid as the climax of the day’s ceremonies, attended by Gov. Nathan L. Miller. An inaugural dinner for 700 guests was held at the Old Armory, with Professor Emeritus Thomas E. (Teefy) Crane (celebrated in Cornell’s fight song “Give My Regards to Davy”) as toastmaster.
Jacob Gould Schurman, who was inaugurated in the Old Armory on November 11, 1892, used the occasion to retell the story of the Morrill Act and to excoriate the state of New York for not having given one cent of support to its fledgling land-grant university. He asked for an annual appropriation from the state of “not less than $150,000!” He also listed special needs, such as faculty salaries, dormitories, and scholarships, for which he would seek private support.
Cornell’s second inauguration took place November 19, 1885, in the Old Armory, a building that stood on the approximate site of the quadrangle of the College of Engineering. After a procession from the Arts Quad, participants attended formal ceremonies that lasted several hours, with three and one-half hours of speeches alone. The new president, Charles Kendall Adams, spoke for more than an hour about the development of higher education in America and his plans for a new form of education. Trustee Henry W. Sage formally presented the new president with the charter and seal. Later that night, the armory was transformed into a festive hall with dancing that lasted until midnight.
On a warm and bright autumn day in 1868, Cornell University celebrated its first Inauguration Day. Though the Arts Quad was little more than a cow pasture and only one still-unfinished building (Morrill Hall) stood, the New York Times reported that at sunrise in Ithaca on October 7, “from all the hills poured forth delightful music, and every few minutes the thunder of artillery from the eastern hills responded to the booming of cannon from a lofty eminence on the west side of town.”
A few hundred people attended the ceremonies at Library Hall, which stood on the corner of Tioga and Seneca Streets. Because the new university’s nonsectarian foundation was extremely controversial at the time, Governor Reuben E. Fenton did not attend the ceremonies but was represented by Lieutenant Governor Stewart L. Woodford, a strong supporter of the new institution.
Ezra Cornell delivered a brief address, in which he said: “I hope we have laid the foundation of an institution which shall combine practical with liberal education, which shall fit the youth of our country for the professions, the farms, the mines, the manufactories, for the investigations of science and for mastering all the practical questions of life with success and honor. I believe that we have made the beginning of an institution which will prove highly beneficial to the poor young men and the poor young women of our country.”
“I desire,” he added, “that this shall prove to be the beginning of an institution which shall furnish better means for the culture of all men of every calling, of every aim; which shall make men more truthful, more honest, more virtuous, more noble, more manly; which shall give them higher purposes and more lofty aims, qualifying them to serve their fellow men better, preparing them to serve society better…”
Woodford administered the oath of office to Andrew Dickson White and presented him with the charter, seal, and keys of the university. White delivered a lengthy address in which he asserted the formative ideals of the new university and declared its educational independence.
Later that day, the crowd climbed up East Hill to the site of the university, where they gathered around a rough wooden structure from which hung a chime of nine bells presented by Miss Jennie McGraw of Ithaca. After the bells rendered “Old Hundred” and “Hail, Columbia,” six distinguished speakers orated, among them Louis Agassiz of Harvard, who said, “I hope I shall live to see the time when all the old colleges will draw fresh life from this young university.”
Adapted from various sources, including A History of Cornell, by Morris Bishop, and the Cornell Chronicle. Programs and inaugural addresses courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.