“WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDER THINK?!”—This is a common and deeply scathing critique at Cornell; the prospect of disappointing our university’s proud patriarch, our Big Red Daddy, bears undeniable rhetorical strength. Nonetheless, as a leading scholar on the life and times of Ezra Cornell himself, I can say with some certainty that Mr. Cornell would not care one single iota about the Brooks School of Public Policy, the land acknowledgement email footer, or the fact that you’re still awaiting your financial aid award. No, if our dear departed director miraculously reappeared on campus today, he would only have one thing to say: “WHERE IN GOD’S NAME is my telegraph?”
Never mind about our institution’s slow sink into the corrupt mires of Ivy League nepotism. In the grand scheme of things, what does a federal class-action lawsuit over financial aid price-fixing matter? Who cares about accusations of on-campus bias and administrative failure? WHAT HAPPENED TO THE TELEGRAPH? The sturdy foundation upon which rested all the communications of the modern age?
Ezra saw in the telegraph what few men of his time could see: elegant beauty, crystallized perfection in the form of a modest electromagnetic relay. His heart would break before he could process the magnitude of the loss he endured (and long before he would notice that the grad students had unionized, or that the student health center had stopped providing tampons.)
I lament the loss of the telegraph almost daily, in fits of self-flagellation, mourning our first and greatest World Wide Web; and there is no doubt in my mind that if Ezra Cornell were here, the frivolous and petty issues of the 21st century would do nothing to distract him from feeling my same pain.
Perhaps he would sink in agony to his knees on the curb of East Avenue, still there all these decades later. And as he would raise his head, his face streaked with tears, his gaze skipping over the crowds of desperate student protestors to find the sky, there would be nothing left to haunt him but the accursed spectre of the telephone pole.