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Academic Life


Art professor Hugh Lifson in 1965.

College has always had a rich and innovative academic program. Through the decades, dozens of distinguished professors have helped shape both the curriculum and the lives of their students. Cornell was a pioneer in developing departments of sociology and geology, as well as innovative degree programs such as the bachelor of special studies (BSS). The college has promoted diversity in its academic community by advocating early an increased role for women in education and welcoming students of different national, cultural, and social backgrounds. The One-Course-At-A-Time program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this sesquicentennial year, is only one example of the innovations that time has brought to the academic community on the Hilltop.

Cornell has offered a diversified curriculum from the first. Besides the collegiate programs, the institution formerly included a primary department (middle school), conservatory of music, school of art, school of oratory and physical culture, and preparatory department (renamed the Cornell Academy in 1894 and the Cornell College High School in 1916).

From 1857 to 1890, the preparatory department had greater enrollments than the college proper. Its purpose was to prepare students from two- and three-year high schools for admission to the college or for careers in teaching (normal course) or business (commercial course). The primary department was discontinued in 1866. The high school closed in June of 1921. Music, art, speech and dramatics, physical education, and teacher education have become departments within the college.

The first professor hired with a PhD, Charles Goodwin, arrived on campus in 1890. Today 92 percent of the faculty hold the highest degrees in their fields.


Over the years several members of the Cornell faculty earned special places in the college’s collective memory. Early professors and leaders, such as Samuel Fellows, were remembered for their ability to inspire and engage their students. During the late 19th century Cornell possessed a body of professors who gave faithful and long service to the college. These individuals—including Harriette Jay Cooke, Alonzo Collin, Hamline Freer, Sylvester Williams, Hugh Boyd, and William H. Norton—as a group averaged 41 years of service as faculty members.

The class of 1906 in front of King Chapel.

The 1912 graduation ceremony, held outdoors.

Clyde Tull, who came to the English department in 1917, established a theater program, published The Husk literary magazine, a series of chapbooks containing writings from Cornellians and other writers, and was responsible for inviting Carl Sandburg and other important figures to campus. During his summers, Tull and his wife, Jewel, a playwright, toured as the “Tull Players” on the Chautauqua circuit.

Winifred Van Etten, professor of English, became nationally famous through the publication of her novel, I Am the Fox(1936), which won a $10,000 prize from Atlantic Monthly and became a best seller.

Charles Keyes, who taught German at Cornell, is best known today for his pioneering work as a student of prehistoric cultures in the Midwest. Ruth Pinkerton taught voice at Cornell for 30 years and then privately taught students in New York until only a few years before her death at age 101.

William Harmon Norton, who started teaching at Cornell as a professor of classical languages, later founded the college’s geology department and spent his free hours cultivating enormous flower gardens. Norton began teaching at Cornell as a 19-year-old language instructor and taught his last class at age 85.

Ruby Wade, who taught French at Cornell for more than 30 years, spent her entire life from the age of 3 living in the Wade House, now the college admission office.

A student studying during the 1914–15 academic year.

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