Cornell College was founded in 1853 by George Bryant Bowman, a Methodist minister from North Carolina with a passionate belief in higher education. Bowman was aided by a group of prominent Mount Vernon citizens who wished to provide educational opportunities for their children beyond the one-room schools that operated for no more than a few months each year.

Originally known as the Iowa Conference Seminary, the school was renamed in 1857 after William Wesley Cornell, a prosperous merchant and devout Methodist whose distant cousin, Ezra Cornell, founded Cornell University 12 years later. Today, Cornell College maintains an affiliation with the United Methodist Church, and the college welcomes people from all religious traditions and from all non-religious perspectives. William Fletcher King became president in 1863 and served for 45 years, one of the longest presidencies in the history of American higher education.

Equal opportunities for all

Over the years, the college distinguished itself as a visionary leader in higher education. Cornell was the first college west of the Mississippi to grant women the same rights and privileges as men, and in 1858, was the first Iowa college to graduate a woman. Harriette Cooke, on the faculty from 1857 to 1890, was one of the first women in the nation to be paid a professorial salary equal to that of her male colleagues. In 1870, the college resolved “… that color and race shall not be considered as a basis of qualification in the admission of students …”

Educational firsts

The college was among the first to recognize the science of education in 1872, when it began offering education courses. 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. Cornell's department of geology is the oldest in Iowa, with course offerings dating back to 1855.

One Course At A Time

Along with its commitment to the preservation of the best of the old, Cornell has been willing to adopt innovative changes. One-hundred-twenty-five years after its founding but in the same pioneering spirit, in 1978, Cornell faculty adopted the block plan, or One Course At A Time, an academic calendar in which students devote themselves to just one subject for three-and-a-half-week course terms.

Today, Cornell College is a thriving liberal arts institution firmly ensconced on several influential “best colleges” lists. Students here choose from a wide range of academic majors and pre-professional programs, or design their own major. In small classes, Cornellians immerse themselves in the exploration of knowledge and understanding—one course at a time.

National Register of Historic Places

Cornell’s campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An audio and web history tour of campus features 11 historic buildings. The tour and website—as well as a tour of Mount Vernon's Ash Park neighborhood—were created by students with Professor of History Catherine Stewart as part of Cornell’s Summer Research Institute.

Traditions: old and new

Since 1853, we’ve been building community at Cornell College by handing down a variety of rich traditions from one class to the next. Here are just a few:

  • The Rock. This 5,000-pound granite boulder has been relocated, painted, burned, buried, and a lot more since first coming to campus in 1889. Today, The Rock is fair game for anyone with a can of paint.
  • The Orange Carpet. Part gathering space, part performance arena, part communications vehicle, this patch of vibrant floor covering has been a campus landmark in the Thomas Commons since 1966. 
  • Toilet Paper Toss. Cornell’s rivalry with Coe College in Cedar Rapidsthe oldest athletic rivalry west of the Mississippihas led to a few interesting traditions. For instance, each year, Rams fans celebrate the men’s basketball team’s first home basket of the year against Coe by filling the court with toilet paper streamers.
  • Move-in Day. Each fall, the Cornell football team and student leaders gather to help new students move in to the residence halls—and to welcome them to campus.
  • Culture Show. Cornell's international student group Eyes of the World organizes this wildly-popular annual variety show featuring songs, dances, fashion, and various talents from around the globe.
  • Relay For LifeCornell students annually lead this overnight event that raises tens of thousands of dollars in the fight against cancer. Their efforts have earned national recognition in recent years for per-capita donations.
  • Student SymposiumThis day-long event on the Orange Carpet provides a showcase for the academic work of Cornell students in the form of poster presentations, lectures, and performances.
  • Late-night Breakfast. To help students fortify themselves for the final dash toward finals, Cornell staff serve them heaping stacks of pancakes and other breakfast goodies late at night several times a year. 
  • Cornell T. Moose. Okay, it’s actually a moose head, and it’s stuffed—but it dates from 1925 and it’s part of the family. The moose, which presides over a student lounge in Law Hall, has been known to receive postcards from admirers.
  • Ginkgo tree. When Cornell was founded, this magnificent tree—now the state's largest ginkgo—already graced the Hilltop. The tree is a majestic backdrop for gatherings on the president's lawn.
  • Commencement. Cornellians cross a stage to collect their diplomas just like other grads. But instead of going alphabetically, they arrange themselves with groups of friends. And during the Baccalaureate service, they honor their four years on campus with a litany of gratitudes.
  • More? New traditions in the making include Moonlight Cafe, painting the kiosks, Get Outta Town adventures, disc golf at lunchtime, Pet Therapy Day, and Purple Wednesdays.