A couple days ago I alluded to Henry Morgenthau’s premature departure from Cornell after some study of agriculture. I tried to find information about Morgenthau in The 100 Most Notable Cornellians, but discovered that the authors had instituted stringent criteria: you had to have completed an undergraduate degree. No famous faculty (no Richard Feynman or Vladimir Nabokov), nobody who got only a graduate degree (no William Gass), and no flunkouts. So no notability as a Cornellian for FDR’s Treasury Secretary and the President of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference. Or for Kurt Vonnegut either.
It was a joke when I was an undergraduate that more famous people had flunked out of Cornell than finished. (Huey Lewis was often mentioned. Hey, it was the 1980s.) Even some of the more famous who finished only “finished”; Christopher Reeve received a Cornell degree but actually completed his education at Juilliard.
There’s something typically Cornellian about the refusal to count those who tried to make it but couldn’t. Cornell likes the idea that you aren’t good enough for it. It’s a tough place. The school’s fight song is about getting kicked out.
Somehow it makes sense that there are a fair number of sharp Cornellians in the law (e.g. Janet Reno and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) but there has never been one occupying the Oval Office. You have to really believe you’re special to run for President.