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Academic Life



Since 1859 the college has made specific provisions for the preparation of teachers. Courses in education were offered for the first time in 1872, one of the earliest recognitions of this science in the country. Sociology was added to the curriculum in 1899, only six years after the University of Chicago established the first academic department of sociology in the United States. The first instruction in geology was offered here in 1855, and a professorship established in 1881. Cornell’s department of geology is the oldest in Iowa.

Cornell was one of the first colleges in the nation to offer its students a choice of degree programs. In addition to the bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees, Cornell has awarded during its long history the degrees mistress of English literature (last conferred 1865), bachelor of civil engineering (conferred 1875–1917), bachelor of philosophy (first conferred 1881), bachelor of music (first conferred 1921), bachelor of school music (conferred 1925-45), and bachelor of music education (conferred 1946-64). The first bachelor of special studies degrees were conferred in May 1972. Master’s degrees in art, science, civil engineering, philosophy, and music were offered by the college at various times from its inception until 1943, although the last such degree was granted in 1936.

Students scuba dive as part of a recent geology class in the Bahamas.

Firsts for women

During its first academic year, there were 161 students, of whom 57 were women. Historically, Cornell has been a pioneer in the cause of women’s rights. The first student to enroll in 1853 was a woman. The college was the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi to grant women the same rights and privileges as men and the first in Iowa to confer a baccalaureate degree on a woman, Mary Fellows, in 1858. Cornell women studied chemistry and other sciences in coeducational classrooms and laboratories long before most of their counterparts at other colleges or universities were allowed to do so. In 1871 Cornell conferred upon Harriette Jay Cooke the first full professorship given to a woman in the United States with a salary equal to that of her male colleagues.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1875 and Susan B. Anthony in 1879 came to Mount Vernon and made Cornellians more aware of the important concerns of women. As early as 1916 the Women’s League at Cornell organized vocational conferences for women students and sponsored lectures by women prominent in the professions, business, and public life. During the 1970s a number of faculty members at Cornell introduced courses that focused on women and integrated the new feminist scholarship rapidly emerging in most disciplines.


The first African-American student to enroll at Cornell, a former slave named Samuel Johnson, attended the college in 1870 in the preparatory department. He was followed by Charles Ruff, who studied in the preparatory department for three years beginning in 1873, but the first African-American awarded a degree was Frank Jeremiah Armstrong, who graduated in 1900 and later went on to a distinguished medical career. In 1968 a group of students demonstrating in favor of greater support for African-American students briefly occupied Old Sem. The result of this demonstration was the creation of Cornell’s first minority student center.

Though almost from its founding Cornell’s student body has included persons of color, significant population increase among all minorities began in the late 1950s. The first international student, from Germany, enrolled in 1882, and since that time students from many different nations have added their experiences to the Cornell community. Minority and feminist scholarship have taken their places in the regular curriculum with the establishment of women’s studies (as a program in 1984, as a major in 1988) and ethnic studies (as a program in 1992, as a major in 2003).


The college now offers more than 50 majors and preprofessional programs as well as an interdisciplinary major designed by the student to meet specific goals and interests.

The Delta of Iowa Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest national honorary society, was chartered at Cornell in 1923. Since 1953 the Coe and Cornell chapters have celebrated their initiations as a joint banquet, the only two of the more than 300 chapters in the country to do so.

In 1978 Cornell became the second college in the country to offer the block plan, known at Cornell as One-Course-At-A-Time. Under this academic calendar, students pursue in-depth a single subject for 3 1/ 2 weeks and then have a 4 1/ 2-day break before beginning their next class. The calendar offers focus and flexibility, including an array of off-campus study programs, internships, and field trips. More than half of Cornell students graduate with two or more majors.

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