Andrew White, Ezra Cornell, and their first faculty colleagues believed that the most effective way to put those ideas in action was to create an academic atmosphere that valued freedom.

Looking back over the first 30 years of the university that he helped found with Ezra Cornell, Andrew Dickson White, Cornell University’s first president, observed that there were two “permeating ideas” informing the university’s approach to education. “First, the development of the individual . . . as a being intellectual [and] moral. Secondly, bringing the powers . . . thus developed to bear usefully upon society.”

Of course, from the first, those permeating ideas applied equally to women as to men, since Cornell was coeducational from the start. More to the point though, Andrew White, Ezra Cornell, and their first faculty colleagues believed that the most effective way to put those ideas in action was to create an academic atmosphere that valued freedom. In a similar review of the first 35 years of Cornell’s history, in 1906, Thomas Frederick Crane (Cornell’s first professor of romance languages, first chair of the Department of Romance Languages, first dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and first person to serve as an interim president of the university) reflected on what he called the “educational ideals of Cornell University”: freedom from traditional influences, recognition of the equality of all fields of study, and seriousness of purpose and maturity of its students.

The first enabled us to break away from the rigid, old fashioned college curriculum with the single degree; the second led us to broaden our courses of study; and the third to enlarge the freedom of choice of studies. But the freedom presented its own problems, chief among them: how was a student to choose wisely? By 1906, all of Cornell’s colleges had developed a method for students enrolling in their courses that required each student to meet with the dean of the college in order to review their choices and then the college’s registrar in order to complete the registration process. When the student population still numbered in the hundreds, such a method was (barely) possible. But in the largest college, the College of Arts and Sciences, even by 1906 the numbers of students made the process unwieldy, and a system was developed that required students to meet with faculty members regularly, especially during registration times. (It is worth noting that the first dean and first registrar in the College of Arts and Sciences became well-known enough to figure in the “Cornell Fight Song”: Thomas Fredrick (T.F.) Crane and David Hoy, aka Teefy and Davy. Just attend enough Cornell sporting events and you will learn the song!)

Thousands of courses from which to choose!

Now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the choices in terms of courses, majors, minors, opportunities for independent research with faculty, and the wide range of academic experiences have grown far beyond anything White and Crane could have imagined. Students coming to the “hill above Cayuga’s waters” today quite literally have thousands of courses from which to choose. Within the seven undergraduate colleges, there are dozens of majors; there are also dozens of minors that are available to students no matter which college is their home college. How to choose among that rich array of intellectual experience can be daunting for students. The system of advising that T.F. Crane helped to create has grown along with the curriculum and opportunities at Cornell. Faculty in each of Cornell’s undergraduate colleges are involved in advising students. Beyond the faculty, each of the colleges has professional staff serving as support for students as they make their ways through Cornell’s varied and challenging curricula.

There is, however, no standard model for advising across Cornell’s seven undergraduate colleges. The colleges do share a commitment to helping students become their own best advocates, helping students to take responsibility for their own education so that they get their academic legs beneath them and walk confidently into their futures as members of the far-flung and loyal Cornell alumni body. Andrew Dickson White’s permeating ideas that education should develop a student’s entire being and that the purpose of that education is to prepare young people to go forth and do good for their communities, their nations, the world—those ideas continue to animate the work that faculty and staff do at Cornell on behalf of students.

Crane’s faith in what he called the “seriousness of purpose and maturity of [Cornell’s] students” has been passed on to those of us who carry on his tasks as dean, faculty member, staff advisor. We assume that Cornell students are mature enough and serious enough to shoulder the responsibilities of adult life imbued with a desire to serve purposes larger than themselves or their immediate needs and wants. We provide instruction, guidance, support. We measure our success as advisors by the extent to which our students are able to surprise us with the reach and scope of their ambitions, with the manifold ways that they fulfill White’s desire that students leave the hill with their powers developed so that they bear usefully on society. Of course, by “usefully” White meant a great deal more than amassing fortunes—as he put it, he sought to guard Cornell University from “the men to whom ‘Gain is God, and Gunnybags his Prophet.’” White believed that creating and sustaining a great university was a patriotic duty, since “the most important duty of our republic is to develop the best minds it possesses for the best service in all its fields of high intellectual activity.”