Remembering Dale Corson
Dale Corson 1914–2012
When he became Cornell’s eighth president in the summer of 1969, a few months after the takeover of Willard Straight Hall by black militants, Dale Corson had already served the University as professor, dean, and provost for twenty-three years. Born on a farm outside Pittsburg, Kansas, Corson received his BA from the College of Emporia (1934), his MA from the University of Kansas (1935), and his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley (1938).
A distinguished particle physicist, Corson was the co-discoverer of the element astatine and the co-author of an influential textbook on electromagnetism. During World War II, he worked at MIT’s fabled Radiation Laboratory and served as a technical adviser at the headquarters of the U.S. Army Air Forces in Washington, D.C. While working at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory at the end of the war, he directed the establishment of the Sandia National Laboratory. Recruited by Cornell in 1946, he became chair of the physics department in 1956. Three years later, President Deane Waldo Malott appointed his fellow Kansan as dean of the College of Engineering, brushing aside his protestations that he was not sufficiently gregarious, urbane, or polished as a public speaker to do the job well. In 1963, President James Perkins made Corson his provost.
An honest, honorable, plain-spoken, candid, and courageous man, Dale Corson restored calm to a troubled campus during one of the most volatile periods in Cornell’s history. Soon after he became president, he began meeting with faculty from every college—and divisiveness and resentment subsided substantially. “The one thing which made it possible for me to survive and command the help of the faculty,” he wrote, “was my long association with them.” Alumni support for Cornell rebounded as well.
During his tenure as president (1969–77), Cornell endured four building seizures or sit-ins, the most consequential of which was an occupation of Carpenter Hall on the Engineering Quad by anti-Vietnam War protestors in April 1972. Corson met each of these challenges with a near-perfect mixture of firmness, principle, patience, tact, and common sense. He reaffirmed Cornell’s commitment to recruiting and retaining black students while insisting on civility and obedience to law. He condemned the war in Vietnam “as a citizen and an educator, rather than as president.” And, thanks to his careful financial stewardship and the recommendations of faculty-led planning commissions, the institution weathered an inflationary spiral that caused budget cuts, tuition hikes, and deferred maintenance to the physical plant.
Despite financial constraints, Corson managed to support substantial, even fundamental, innovations in research and teaching at Cornell. Before the term multidisciplinary became fashionable, he encouraged the formation of programs in Science, Technology, and Society; Materials Science; Medieval Studies; and Women’s Studies. He had a hand in the expansion of the Division of Biological Sciences, the Department of Geology, and the Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory. And he oversaw the completion of the I. M. Pei-designed Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.
Corson also presided over a major restructuring of governance at Cornell, with the establishment of a faculty-student-employee University Senate, the addition of student and employee representatives to the Board of Trustees, and a campus code of conduct and judicial system.
Less revolutionary but nonetheless important and permanent changes occurred during his presidency as well. Beginning in the fall of 1972, classes began for the first time before Labor Day—and examinations ended before Christmas. And, for the first time in decades, Commencement was held in an outdoor ceremony at Schoellkopf Stadium.
Citing the toll the presidency had taken on him and Nellie, his wife, Corson stepped down in 1977 and was named chancellor. Three years later, he retired. Nonetheless, Corson remained busy and productive. He was an adviser and mentor to his successors—Frank Rhodes, Hunter Rawlings, Jeffrey Lehman ’77, and David Skorton—and to more than half a dozen provosts. He honed his (already estimable) skills as a photographer. Having played a key role in the birth of the space program in the United States, he was an articulate and effective proponent of government support for scientific initiatives—and in 1987 the National Academy of Sciences awarded him its coveted Public Welfare Medal. Thinking globally but acting locally, Corson helped found Kendal at Ithaca, a retirement community, moving there with Nellie when it opened.
Dale Corson was respected by virtually everyone who knew him. They—and we—recognize his wisdom, sound judgment, and rock-ribbed integrity. We celebrate him as an exemplary Cornellian, whose greatness originated in his goodness.
Glenn Altschuler, PhD ’76, is the Litwin Professor of American Studies, dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, and vice president for university relations. Isaac Kramnick is the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government.