Life Trustee Ezra Cornell ’70

A Conversation with Life Trustee Ezra Cornell ’70, BS ’71

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Ezra Cornell ’70, BS ’71, is the great-great-great grandson of University founder Ezra Cornell—and as his eldest living lineal descendant, he holds the life trustee position on the Board of Trustees as stipulated by the University’s charter.

In 1959, his father, William Ezra Cornell ’40, died suddenly at age 42 after serving just two years on the board.

Then 11, Ezra couldn’t legally serve until age 21 and was named “trustee-in-waiting” as a grade-schooler—a status that garnered national headlines.

He officially joined the board the fall of his senior year in CALS; shortly after marking 50 years of service in 2019, he became the University’s longest-ever-serving active trustee.

Earlier this month, Board Chair Kraig Kayser, MBA ’84, tapped Ezra to lead an ad hoc trustee committee to partner with President Martha E. Pollack and the administration in its ongoing review of relevant institutional policies and procedures that impact campus conduct, announced by President Pollack in her November 1 campus message.

Young Ezra at age 11 in 1959, shortly after being named a University trustee-in-waiting.
Looking scholarly at age 11, shortly after being named “trustee-in-waiting.” (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Cornellians sat down with Ezra to discuss his unique role within the University and his thoughts on its past, present, and future.

What are your earliest memories of being aware of your family’s role in founding, building, and sustaining the University?

The year before I was named trustee-in-waiting, my dad brought me up to Cornell for a football game against Colgate. I recall driving toward campus near sunset on Danby Road, lined with tall trees.

There was a break in the trees and a spectacular view of the lake. I can’t remember my dad’s exact words, but it was along the lines of: “this place could be important to you at some future time.”

Ezra Cornell ’70 leaving Uris Library in 1969
Leaving Uris Library as a newly minted trustee. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

A couple of months after my father died, I was in my sixth-grade classroom, and over the PA system I heard, “Ezra Cornell, please report to the principal’s office.”

My teacher brought me down to the office, and it was crowded with reporters and photographers. I don’t really recall what I said, but that’s when I began to realize this role was going to be something special.

You were still an undergrad when you became a trustee; what was that like?

I walked into the boardroom for my first meeting, I think, a few days after I turned 21.

The trustees were all considerably older, and they were all male—except for one woman, Patricia Carry Stewart ’50, who became a lifelong friend and my mentor on the board.

I learned a lot from the others on the board. And there were some remarkable people on it.

What does it mean for Cornell—unique among its peers—to have a lineal descendant of its founder as a trustee? Why is that special or valuable?

It wasn’t Ezra Cornell who made the decision about a life trustee; it was the early board members themselves.

They thought that the concept that Ezra Cornell and A.D. White had—founding this university based on core values remarkably different than any other at the time—meant that there needed to be a trustee dedicated to reminding the board, faculty, staff, students, and others of those values, that they would remain in perpetuity.

While the other trustees all bring their own valuable expertise—whether from the fields of business, finance, law, government, and elsewhere—I, as the life trustee, owe my responsibility to the Founder.

Andrew Tisch ’71 joins Ezra Cornell in 2014 to lead the Sy Katz '31 parade procession down Fifth Avenue in New York City
Leading the 2014 Sy Katz '31 Parade in NYC with Andrew Tisch ’71. (Cornell University)

During challenging times for the University—as the past several months have certainly been—what is most important for members of the Cornell community to remember about our founding principles and core values?

That diversity is part of our DNA. Cornell’s founders wanted to have men and women and people of all colors, races, and religions, able to come, if they were capable of doing the work.

That’s the “any person”—we’re going to have people around us who are different than we are, and we need to get along. This is a place of welcoming. And the opportunities, the “any study,” goes along with that.

New York State Gov. (then Lt. Gov.) Kathy Hochul poses with Ezra and the Cornell University Charter during Charter Day Sesquicentennial celebrations in April 2015.
With now-Governor Kathy Hochul and the University Charter during the Sesquicentennial. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

Our history has been blessed with achievements and I know that our alumni and friends are very proud of what Cornell has accomplished and its promise for the future.

There have certainly been challenging times over the past 159 years. And even in these times, we need to remind individuals—whether they’re faculty, students, staff, or administration—that we all need to be responsible for what we’re saying and doing. It’s okay to express ideas that are different; let’s all talk about those things. We should remember that education is our primary purpose.

Diversity is part of our DNA. Cornell’s founders wanted to have men and women and people of all colors, races, and religions, able to come, if they were capable of doing the work.

As President Pollack has said time and again when defending the importance of free speech and expression: all voices should be heard, and we cannot allow the “hecklers’ veto” to infringe on the rights of others to speak by effectively shutting down speech. We can solve things by learning from one another.

So how do we ensure both freedom of expression and an obligation to civic and personal responsibility?

Ezra Cornell with his great-great-great grandfather’s wedding socks, selected with other Cornell items for a flight on the space shuttle in 1989.
With his great-great-great grandfather’s wedding socks, selected with other Big Red items for a flight on the space shuttle in 1989. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

In my opinion, the best way to ensure a more civil society is through education.

The First Amendment and the other freedoms described in the U.S. Constitution were the result of research by Monroe, Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and other Founding Fathers, who had studied the successes and difficulties of past nations and the philosophies of ancients.

It’s definitely more challenging today in that students aren’t getting that education coming out of high school—whether it’s public or private—about that history, Greek and Roman philosophy, civil disobedience. I doubt many of them have read George Washington’s Rules of Civility.

So colleges and universities need to enable freedom of expression because it’s fundamental to learning, along with wondering, testing, debating, and accepting new ideas.

Setting aside particular political opinions, what does Cornell need to do and say to ensure that its students feel safe on campus and as a welcomed part of the community?

First, they can recognize that they are safe. This is a well-run campus; our police are very well trained, and they are very good people.

Students, parents, and alumni need to hear more from us: that we have policies in place, that we have people to help. The administration has been doing just that, with more outreach to parents and alumni, to assure them that this is a safe environment.

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Colleges and universities need to enable freedom of expression because it’s fundamental to learning.

There are perceptions that are legitimate; Jewish students and their families know that for thousands of years, there has been antisemitism, and horrible things have happened to Jewish people.

If we can get people to promote their causes in a more respectful way, that will certainly take the heat off; I also think we’re getting a lot of “stirring of the pot,” as it were, coming from the outside.

Cornell’s founding principles embrace the essence of diversity, equity, and inclusion. How should we think about these values today, when even the label “DEI” has become divisive?

Our university has had diversity as a core element since before anyone dreamed of “DEI,” and I like that people also now stress “belonging” as part of that.

We want people to feel they are welcomed at Cornell. And while some people think our DEI efforts are part of a political movement, what our staff is actually trying to do is help people who are nontraditional students, who have disabilities, who come from rural communities, who are military veterans.

Capping a day of Sesquicentennial celebrations on April 27, 2015, Ezra stopped by Corey Earle ’07’s AMST 2001 Cornell history class in Uris Auditorium
At the "First American University" Cornell history class taught by Corey Earle ’07. (Provided)

We are committed to having a diverse population of exceptional students who are eager to learn.

But Cornell has always been a place where there are conflicting and challenging ideas, where there are debates. You’re finding your way as a person in this struggle of getting a great education.

How well do you feel that President Pollack has responded to the uniquely difficult campus climate since the horrific events of October 7?

I think she’s doing an excellent job. We are fortunate to have a president who understands our very large institution, who has the will to take on all the challenges, and who produces results we can be proud of.

We are fortunate to have a president who understands our very large institution, who has the will to take on all the challenges, and who produces results we can be proud of.

I know she has been working very well with her team: no institution of our size can lead or manage alone. President Pollack, Provost Mike Kotlikoff, and Board Chair Kraig Kayser are dealing with a lot right now, and they deserve our personal support.

The current crisis in the Middle East has been horrific, and there have definitely been ripple effects and additional challenges. They need to be dealt with seriously and properly, and I think we’re going down the right road.

What are your hopes for this ad hoc committee announced earlier this month by President Pollack, which you will chair, that will partner with the administration on its review of university policies to ensure that we are living up to our core values as an institution?

As a first step, there has already been significant work done to develop new expressive activity and anti-doxing policies, and community input is being gathered now on interim versions of these. Our committee will review proposed final versions of these new policies. After that, there will be work on other policies, such as Cornell’s anti-discrimination policy, that are particularly relevant to the challenges we’re currently facing.

In all of these cases, the role of our committee will be to review proposed revisions—after community input has been obtained—with an eye to ensuring both that they are consistent with regulatory requirements and, most importantly, that they are reflective of our core values.

Ezra Cornell poses in front of the statue of the founder Ezra Cornell, his great-great-great grandfather
With the Founder's statue on the Arts Quad. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Given all you have heard and read about founder Ezra Cornell, what do you most admire about him?

I know that he was a person of not of a lot of words—that is, spoken words—but he did write a bit, and I have read many of his letters.

He had very firm beliefs, and he didn’t really change any over his lifetime.

Ezra Cornell and wife Daphne in Portland, Oregon
With wife Daphne. (Provided)

He believed that there was right and wrong, and that people should do the right things for each other. That giving was a great way to feel good about what you were doing in life, and that you had purpose under God.

He also had great vision, and he understood what was wrong with higher education; during his early life, it wasn’t available to him.

And he was an ambitious person who wanted to be successful for himself and his family, and for his city here in Ithaca.

He believed that women could and should get an education, and that the color of people’s skin, and what they believed in, should be unimportant in terms of access. So once he had the means to help start a library, then a university, he wanted them to be for anybody to learn anything.

Ultimately, perhaps most admirable is that Ezra Cornell was true and firm in his vision to create a uniquely American university that was welcoming and provided educational opportunities for any man or woman.

What do you think would surprise the Founder most about today’s Cornell?

I think that because he intended this to be a “large and great university with lots of different studies,” he knew there would be fields and areas that he couldn’t even conceive of at the time.

He was always very interested in things that were mechanical, and I think he would be absolutely fascinated today with our Cornell Bowers College of Computing and Information Science. It would surprise and delight him.

Ezra Cornell with daughter Katy and granddaughter Marion during Sesquicentennial celebrations.
With daughter Katy and granddaughter Marion during the Sesquicentennial. (Provided)

You’ve been preparing your eldest daughter, Katy Cornell ’01, BS ’02, to eventually step into the role of life trustee. What’s the most important advice you’ve given her?

To learn from her fellow trustees; to understand that her role is a bit different than theirs, and that she is one member of a large board; and, in her thinking, to be focused on the present, yet also contribute to the University’s future.

Top: Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University.

Published February 13, 2024


Comments

  1. June Gruner

    I am reading the autobiography of Andrew D White which I love as it tells how the University was formed. I grew up in Ithaca but only my brothers went to Cornell. Vince Mulcahy and Patrick Mulcahy who taught Architecture! Patrick came and lectured as he was CEO of Energizer! Vince taught Architecture ! I love Cornell and Ithaca as a whole so did it’s founder Ezra Cornell ! Such a special place !

  2. Steven A. Ludsin, Class of 1970

    I am always grateful for the education I received at Cornell which included how to be life-smart. I am proud that Ezra is my classmate and a friend. Many of the best parts of my experience in life are attributable to the friendships I formed during my undergraduate days. It has been reassuring to know Ezra is a trustee. He even likes my many letters to the editor!

  3. Wendy Levitt, Class of 1992

    I am disappointed that, while Mr. Cornell is clearly sympathetic to the harassment that Jewish students are experiencing on campus, he did not call for the students who are doing the harassing to stand down, and he did not acknowledge that there are professors, like the two groups who authored recent opinions in the Daily Sun, who are actually encouraging harassment of Jewish students by teaching their (misguided) political opinions as fact.

  4. William Schwarzkopf, Class of 1970

    Good job encapsulating old time values and modern thinking and reconciling them.
    You are special.

  5. Charlie Kentnor, Class of 1964

    I have been a pretty quiet alum and have only made one reunion. Nevertheless, I do not think I could have gone to a better engineering school. The five year program which sunset when our BME ‘65 class graduated allowed me to have many elective opportunities which I think I maximized. The holistic education I received has served me well In my various entrepreneurial pursuits on my life’s journey. Recognizing how beneficial my Cornell education was, my step-mother established a scholarship in the Veterinary College which has been helpful to many graduates over the years. I could go one, but suffice it to say the Cornell education is the best there is – now and forever!

  6. Nancy Goldberg

    Cornell has shaped my life and that of family members. We have a campus bench for my husband Stan ‘55 that states what Cornell meant to him & how he passed his devotion to Cornell on to others. I have known Ezra & family for a long time. They have imbued the essence of Cornell to so many people locally and far away. I am continually proud of Cornell and its eminent place in the world.

  7. Mark Brandt, Class of 1986

    I want to say that I have had the pleasure of meeting Ezra several times and he is a class act. I just met his daughter and son in law and grand baby this year at the endowment breakfast held at council trustee weekend. They too were very kind people. This is an amazing legacy to an amazing family that went “All In” on this college. Thank goodness they did.

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