Cornell University welcomed its first 412 students to the rural campus overlooking Lake Cayuga in Ithaca, New York, on October 7, 1868. Cornell is one of the original institutions funded as a result of landmark federal legislation, the Morrill Act of 1862. Named for Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill, this legislation offered states grants in the form of federal lands proportional to their population to establish public institutions (colleges) in agriculture, mechanic arts (engineering), military science, and classical studies. Proceeds from the sale of these federal lands were meant to build and operate the new colleges.
The land-grant colleges also provided greater access to college for women. Women were formally admitted to Cornell in the spring of 1872.
Cornell is proud of many firsts. These include the nation’s first university degree in veterinary medicine and the first doctorates in electrical engineering and industrial engineering. Cornell established the first four-year schools of hotel administration and industrial and labor relations. The Cornell University Press was the first university publishing enterprise in the U.S. and is one of the country’s largest university presses. Cornell was the first among all U.S. colleges and universities to allow undergraduates to borrow books from its libraries.
Cornell University was one of the first colleges to field a football team. “Big Red,” the nickname for all Cornell’s varsity teams, was first “Big Red Bear,” when in 1916, the varsity football team collected $25 to purchase a black bear cub they nicknamed Touchdown. A student wearing a costume was substituted for the live bear not long afterward.
A second Morrill Act, passed in 1890, sought to extend access to higher education through additional endowments for all land-grant institutions as established in the 1862 act. This legislation withheld funds from states that failed to provide, at minimum, separate but equal educational facilities for African Americans, and led to the founding of many historically black colleges and universities.
Some of the most well-known land-grant institutions are Purdue University in Indiana, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, Tuskegee University in Alabama, Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Today, Cornell is the only land-grant institution of New York State and equally a privately endowed university, the only land-grant member of the Ivy League/Ancient Eight, and a partner of the State University of New York.
- Search across the photograph collections on Cornell or Ithaca to see more photographs of Cornell University, as well as the scenic Ithaca Falls and Cascadilla Gorge.
- Search on Cornell University in Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885 to find the “Cornell University Polka” and the “Cornell University Defilé March.”
- Explore the wide range of materials available on other institutions of higher learning. Search across all the collections on college, or university, or on the names of individual institutions.
- Read the Morrill Act in Primary Documents in American History for more information on this groundbreaking statute.