Economics at Cornell

 Cornell University

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 The youngest of the Ivy League colleges in the United States, Cornell University was founded in 1865, as a land-grant university by New York State, with a substantial additional endowment by Ezra Cornell.  The Morrill Act of 1962 had authorized grants of federal lands to US states to fund the erection of "agricultural and mechanical colleges" (loosely defined).  New York State had been allocated some $1.2 million in land-grant funding, and there were competing proposals. In the end, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, both of them New York State senators at the time, agreed to combine their efforts into a proposal for a single scheme - what would become Cornell University, chartered in 1865.  Acceptance of the Cornell-White scheme by New York was facilitated by the promise of additional endowment beyond the federal land grant money.  Ezra Cornell was a Quaker farmer who had made a substantial fortune as the leading stockholder of the Western Union telegraph company, and had been looking to deploy it "for the common good".  Cornell  pledged $500,000, on the condition that the university would be located in his home town of Ithaca, New York.  Andrew Dickson White, a businessman from Syracuse and former academic (he had previously been professor of history at Michigan), would become the president of the new institution.   White had, in his youth, gone abroad to England, France and Germany (together with Yale classmate Daniel Coit Gilman, later president of Johns Hopkins), and was eager to use the opportunity to translate elements of the modern European university model to American soil. White persuaded Cornell (who had initially envisaged merely some sort of polytechnic school) to endorse this grand direction.

Cornell University opened for classes in the Fall of 1868.  Andrew Dickson White served both as president and professor of history at Cornell from the outset.  The professor of moral philosopher, William Dexter Wilson (formerly of Geneva College) was in charge of delivering the dose of economics in the fourth year - which he did with protectionist enthusiasm, placing Henry C. Carey's works as centerpiece through the 1870s.  

Cornell faced difficulties in the late 1870s and early 1880s, a period where A.D. White was usually abroad on official US diplomatic missions and leadership drifted.  In 1879, returning briefly from Paris with notes on the Grand Ecoles, White decided to strengthen the social sciences to better train public leaders, and set out a plan to set up a dedicated course of instruction in "History and Political Science" (which included economics), and even raise it into a distinct school.  While abroad, White had come across the young Hopkins graduate, Henry C. Adams, and brought him to Cornell in 1880 as a lecturer in political economy (gently and gradually edging the aged Wilson), along with Herbert Tuttle (to teach political science) and the historian Charles Kendall Adams.  The three lecturers would form the core of school. In 1883, they were promoted to associate professors.  

After twenty years at the helm, and lured by further diplomatic posts, Andrew Dickson White resigned in 1885 (endowing his substantial private library to the university), and was succeeded by Charles Kendall Adams as president of Cornell.  Under C.K. Adams, the Course of History and Political Science was overhauled and further strengthened, but only after a period of high instability.  For apparently political reasons, Henry C. Adams was forced to resign in 1887 from Cornell and was replaced in the interim by instructor Frank Heywood Hodder. Cornell poached E. Benjamin Andrews from Brown to take over economics teaching in 1888, but he would not stay for long. Called to the presidency of Brown a year later, E.B. Andrews decamped in 1889, and Hodder was once again asked to temporarily fill the gap. The next professor of political economy and finance, J. Laurence Laughlin, arrived in 1890, but he left two years later to take up the leadership at the newly-founded University of Chicago in 1892.  Laughlin took his junior associate Adolph C. Miller and young fellow Thorstein Veblen (both at Cornell since 1891) with him to Chicago. 

The president Charles K Adams left Cornell in 1892 to take up the presidency of the University of Wisconsin.  His successor as president, Jacob Gould Schurman, was determined on introducing more stability at Cornell.  Some form of stability finally arrived with Jeremiah W. Jenks.  Hoping to raise the department into a properly distinct school, new courses in Political Institutions, Municipal Institutions and International Law had been introduced in 1887 and were placed originally in the hands of Herbert Tuttle. But Tuttle was inherently a historian, so in 1891, Jeremiah W. Jenks was brought in to take over the political, municipal and social institutions courses, while Tuttle moved sideways to become professor of modern history.  With Laughlin & Miller's departure, Jenks was notionally appointed to take over political economy, but Jenks was absent in Europe on sabbatical for the duration of 1892-93.  To make up the gaps, a crop of younger men were brought in 1892 - Ely student Edward A. Ross (associate in political economy) , Walter F. Willcox (assistant in social science and statistics)  and Charles H. Hull (assistant in institutions).  Ross did not stay long - departing for Stanford in 1893.  So Cornell turned to Hopkins again in 1893, and brought in the promising young economists L.S. Merriam as lecturer and Thomas Nixon Carver as fellow in economics.  But this was also fleeting.  Merriam died tragically in a boating accident within a few months, and Carver, after finishing his Ph.D. at Cornell in 1894, moved on to Oberlin. To replace them, Cornell brought in  Frank A. Fetter, a former Jenks protege, just returning with a German doctorate, but he stayed on for only a year, before moving on to Indiana.  Another Ely student, Charles J. Bullock, newly minted from Wisconsin,  was brought in 1895.

Jenks, Willcox, Hull and Bullock gave Cornell economics stability for the rest of the decade. But instability returned in 1899, when Bullock left for Williams College and that same year, Willcox left to work as chief statistician of the Census (he would return in 1901) and Jenks was bogged down with the US Industrial Commission.  C.H. Hull took up the slack temporarily and was offered a full professorship of political economy, but declined  it in favor of a professorship of American history in 1900.  So, in 1901, Cornell lured back  Frank A. Fetter (who had just resigned from Stanford) and appointed him as new professor of political economy and finance in 1901. 

The trio of Jenks, Willcox and Fetter dominated Cornell economics for the next decade.  Although Jenks was notionally the senior man and taught a lion's share of courses, he was more interested in political science, and was frequently absent (a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, Jenks found himself repeatedly appointed to a variety of US commissions which often had him traveling abroad). With Willcox primarily focused on statistics, it is probably fair to say that economic theory at Cornell really boiled down to Frank Fetter during this period.  A thoroughly Neoclassical economist, of Austrian proclivities,  Fetter maintained Cornell as a bastion of Neoclassicism (what Fetter liked to call the "Psychological School"), while other American universities were gliding into Institutionalism.  In the early part of the century, there two important additions: Edwin W. Kemmerer, a Jenks student who had served as a "money doctor" in the Philippines in 1903-06, joined the Cornell faculty in 1906, while Harvard economic historian A.P. Usher joined in 1910 as an instructor in economics.

Cornell economics, however, unravelled again in 1912.  J.W. Jenks resigned to take up a position with the Alexander Hamilton Institute, while Fetter and Kemmerer decamped for Princeton.  Alvin S. Johnson (then unhappily at Stanford) was brought in to fill the gap and, supplemented by Allyn Young in 1913, deepened the "Neoclassicazation" of the department begun by Fetter.  Johnson left for New York after three years, and was replaced by Herbert J. Davenport in 1916. Herbert J. Davenport would preside over Cornell for many years.  Usher and Young left for Harvard in 1920.

From Fetter through Davenport, Cornell remained something of a bastion of Neoclassical theory - the "Psychological School" - during a time when most American academics had discarded the theory and universities embraced rising Institutionalism.  In bucking the trend and tending the Neoclassical flame, Cornell would be joined by Chicago in the 1920s, after Frank H. Knight took up his seat there.  The young F.H. Knight had been a student at Cornell during the 1910s, starting out in philosophy, then switching over to economics under the tutelage of Johnson and Young and finishing under Davenport in 1916.  (Going the other way, Sumner Slichter went from Chicago to Cornell in 1920).  Charles F. Roos, who would go on to became the first research director at Cowles, started off as professor of mathematics at Cornell in the 1920s.  It is perhaps fitting that an early champion of American-style Neoclassicism, Benjamin H. Anderson, would finally rest his tired bones at Cornell in the 1940s.





Resources on Cornell Economics

  • Department of Economics at Cornell University 
  • Ten-Year Book of Cornell University, 1868-1878 [bk], with school of political science p.22 (book):
  • A Story Historical of Cornell University, by Murray E. Poole [bk]
  • Guide to the Campus, Cornell University, 1920 [bk]
  • First Principles of Political Economy, with reference to statesmanship and the progress of civilization, by W.D. Wilson, 1875 [bk] - Cornell textbook.
  • "Cornell University" in Kibble's Cyclopedia of Education, 1883
  • Notes on Cornell appointments in AAPSS: "appointment of Miller" (Jan 1892, p.106), app of Merriam (Nov 1893, p.122), Merriam's death" (Jan, 1894, p.155), reorganization of department (1901, p.103)
  • Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White, 1905, v.1, v.2
  • Andrew D. White's farewell address, 1885 [bk]
  • Catalogue of Andrew D. White Library, 1889 v.1, v.2
  • My Reminisces of Ezra Cornell, by A.D. White, 1890 [bk]
  • "Instruction in Social Science", by A.D. White, 1890, ASSA [bk]
  • Report to Cornell Trustees on a college for women, by A.D. White, 1872 [bk]
  • What Profession Shall I Chose? Handbook of facilities at Cornell, 1884 [bk]
  • Dept of History & Political Science Cornell Register  [1874-75, p.50, ] [1879-80, p.50, & p.83]. [1899-1900: p.119, courses p.128][1901-1902, p.121 & p.130][1909-10, p.156]
  • "Cornell archives" at Irwin Collier's Economics in the Rear-view Mirror blog
  •  Wiki


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