By Charles Milhauser
In the beginning there was only a hilltop. On Sept. 19, 1852, the Iowa Conference of the Methodist Church chose five laymen who owned stores in Mount Vernon and four clergymen, including George Bowman, to form a board of trustees to erect a school on that hilltop. The board then elected Elder Bowman president.
Of the lay members, Allison I. Willits and Jesse Holman were born in Indiana. Willits proposed in 1847 that the town be called Mount Vernon and that it build a college. Elisha Dick Waln, a Virginian, was the town’s first postmaster. William Hayzlett came from West Virginia, and Henry Kepler was a Marylander married to Willits’ sister. The wives of Willits and Kepler were daughters of Isaac Julian, who sold Bowman the hilltop land. Isaac’s son, George Washington Julian, ran for vice president of the United States on the Free Soil ticket in 1852.
In the fall of 1853, Bowman arrived fresh from attending a funeral in Iowa City to chair a trustees’ meeting. Reminding the members of their mortality and that their true treasure lay in heaven, he asked each to contribute $500 (worth $12,300 today, adjusted for inflation), which they did. Subsequent generations of trustees have also been unable to withstand similar calls to support the college, and to their financial stewardship and generosity Cornell owes its survival. The average annual trustee gift today is $17,000.
Over the years the board has increased in size and composition. The first alumnus to become a trustee was attorney Charles W. Rollins, Class of 1869. In 1932 Blanche Swingley Armstrong and Rowena Bronson Stuckslager, both alumnae and widows of trustees, became the first women to serve on the board. In 1969, the board accepted its first “young trustee,” Robert Taubenheim, a graduate of that year. This position confers full voting rights for a three-year, non-renewable term on a graduate of that year who has been elected by the board.
In 1905, Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and endowed it with $10 million to provide pensions for retiring college and university professors. For a school to be eligible, it could not be owned or controlled by a religious organization or impose any denominational or sectarian test for the hiring of trustees, administrators, or faculty, or in admitting students. Since Cornell’s founding, the Methodist Church had appointed its trustees, albeit from candidates nominated by Cornell’s board. Despite increasing pressure from faculty and others, the board resisted change until 1912, when it accepted the conditions of the Carnegie Foundation and revised the articles of incorporation.
A second major challenge to board power occurred in 1926 when the students asked that the rule banning dancing be abolished. The faculty seized the occasion to agitate for authority to decide all matters concerning student activities, heretofore a power the board expressly reserved to itself. Three years later the trustees reluctantly agreed to both demands.
In light of the Carnegie Foundation’s stipulations, it was remarkable to find forms in use years later that asked the following questions of applicants for teaching positions at Cornell (quoted here from a 1946 application): “Are you a church member? What denomination? Do you regularly attend church services? In what church organizations do you work? Are you interested in the Christian motivation of young life? In what way are you best able to give this motivation? Are you willing to set the example of wholesome living for others?” The form also asks whether he or she uses tobacco and “intoxicating liquors” and “What is your position toward the American way of life?”