Why Syracuse and Cornell Would Ever Be Mentioned in the Same Sentence

3 07 2012

I have a certain fondness for the Orange. I grew up in the Syracuse sphere of influence, where because of the lack of national sports franchises in the region (a few hardy souls follow the Buffalo Bills, who went 0-4 in a row in the Super Bowl in the 1990s; having not been to the playoffs in over a decade, beings a Bills fan requires grief therapy), the Syracuse Orangemen/Orangewomen, now using the extra PC term of Syracuse Orange, were the teams to follow, especially in football and basketball. When I was growing up in my hometown not too long ago, it was generally expected that if you were reasonably talented, you went to SU. And a couple dozen of my high school classmates did just that. I was the only one in my year that went to the Big Red, 50 miles southwest of University Hill.

In my mind, I often draw parallels to Cornell and Syracuse. They were both established in the Reconstruction Era – Cornell in 1865, and Syracuse in 1870. Both are large institutions – the combined student enrollment for Cornell is 20,939, and Syracuse is 20,407. In terms of the prestige factor, both are well-regarded, although Cornell, with its Ivy League gilding, is usually considered the more respected of the two. US News & World report ranks Cornell in a tie with Brown for 15th (roughly constant for the past few years), and Syracuse 62nd (a drop of about 12 spots since I started college in 2006). That all being said, if Syracuse had had what I wanted to study, and it was better ranked in that field than Cornell, I would’ve gone to Syracuse, lack of ivy notwithstanding.

The two are physically close, superficially similar, and their history is intertwined, which is what I want to touch on with this entry. Collegiate snobbery aside, Cornellians and Syracusans undoubtedly owe a fair amount of their history to each other.

First of all, Syracusans can thank Ezra Cornell (or curse him, perhaps) for being located where they are today. Andrew Dickson White and Ezra Cornell were state senators in the early 1860s, when the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act was passed; Cornell represented the Ithaca area, and White was elected out of the city of Syracuse. While they both united under the common goal of establish one strong university with those land sale proceeds, they differed on location. White wanted Syracuse to be home to the new school, and for the college to be seated on what is now University Hill. He believed that Syracuse, a burgeoning transportation hub, would make it easier to recruit faculty, and that the city would serve the university better. However, Ezra Cornell strongly disagreed; he detested Syracuse as a den of sin, citing an incident where he was twice-robbed of his wages as a young man while working in the city. Old Uncle Ezra offered up his farm in Ithaca if White agreed to keep the school out of Syracuse. White relented, and in following fashion, named the school after its biggest benefactor. On a final note, while Ezra gave $500,000 (1865 dollars) and his property to his fledgling institution, he gave $25,000 (1865 dollars) to those who supported a Syracuse school, so they would support the bill establishing the Ithaca school. In turn, this money was used to assist moving Genesee College from Lima, New York, to Syracuse, and helped SU to be established.

In many ways, the relationship between Cornell and Syracuse could be described as antagonistic. Cornell had the first school of forestry in the state, from 1898 to 1903. At that point, Bernhard Fernow had ticked off enough Adirondack land owners and wealthy vacationers that the governor vetoed funding for the school, which led to the Board of Trustees shutting it down. However, several years later, under the influence of Syracuse trustee Louis Marshall, a new forestry college was established in Syracuse, semi-associated with SU (SUNY ESF, in 1911). Rather than completely give in, Cornell continued a much smaller forestry college within the agriculture school, which annoyed the bean counters in Albany enough that they officially made SUNY ESF the primary forestry school in the 1930s, relegating Cornell to only “farm forestry“. In exchange, Syracuse had to drop all ambition of its own College of Agriculture. Today, the forestry department at Cornell is known as the Department of Natural Resources.

Competition for state money has always been a sticking point for Cornell and Syracuse. While Cornell lost the battle for the forestry school, Syracuse lost the battle for the ILR school (Industrial and Labor Relations) while it was being conceived in the late 1930s. Post WWII, academic competition between the two schools has given way as they diverged in their interests; the primary contests between the two institutions these days involve sports, where Syracuse usually has the upper hand.

So, as much as students at the two schools may taunt and jeer at each other, both institutions have played a crucial role in helping to develop the other. However, given my orange and red sympathies, I will forever be unwelcome at SU vs. Cornell games for the rest of my life.