Ithaca College’s 10th Presidential Inauguration

By Charles McKenzie, October 2, 2022
La Jerne Terry Cornish honored at Ithaca Together celebration.


IC’s African Drumming and Dance Ensemble leads Cornish into the Inauguration. (Photo Credit: Dave Burbank)

Dr. La Jerne Terry Cornish was literally and figuratively moved by the procession of pageantry and percussion that enveloped her as the African Drumming and Dance Ensemble propelled her forward to the beat of drums, setting a new rhythm for a new presidency. For Cornish, they summoned first joy and gratitude, and then just minutes into her inauguration as Ithaca College’s 10th president, they summoned tears. 

 “That procession was a complete surprise,” Cornish said after Saturday’s ceremony. “I felt like my ancestors were smiling as they were ushering me in. I felt their presence and all of the support around me, and it all brought tears to my eyes. I said to myself, ‘Here I am.’” 

The Families Meet

Thus started IC’s 10th presidential inauguration. The ceremony, held Oct. 1 in the Athletics and Events Center, was a marriage of royal pageantry and homegrown reunion, bringing together extended families celebrating both their oldest roots and their newest generations. Two past Ithaca College presidents attended along with a sea of students, staff, faculty, alumni, local community members and delegates representing a host of colleges and universities. They congratulated and welcomed a huge delegation from Cornish’s past, including her family, friends, former colleagues and even her sorority sisters.  

“Along with those I consider part of my IC family, I’m so honored and grateful to have many mentors, colleagues, contemporaries, and members of my lifelong family here today,” she said in her inaugural address. “Moments such as this that bring us together are reminders of the importance of having a support system to help us grow and flourish.”   

man speaking

Cornish's brother, David Terry, speaks to the crowd at the A&E Center during Inauguration. (Photo Credit: Dave Burbank)

Though no stranger to Ithaca College—she was named president in March of 2022 after serving as interim president since August of 2021 and joining the college as provost in 2018—Cornish was introduced at the ceremony by her brother David Terry. Although he has spent his life admiring her “intellect, passion, loyalty, generosity, and work ethic amongst many other fine qualities,” she is still his big sister: “It's normal: just Jerne being Jerne!” he said.  

Their father was a steelworker with a ninth-grade education, and their mother overcame numerous hurdles to go to college “in a time when people of color had limited opportunities and resources to pursue a degree,” he said. “But somehow she overcame those obstacles to become a schoolteacher.” Cornish later followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a public-school teacher, and administrator, in Baltimore.  

When Terry introduced his sister, he did so with the thunderous, staccato tone of a ring announcer bringing out a prize fighter, perhaps a fitting gesture for an administrator who helped lead Ithaca College through the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. As he loudly stretched out her name for dramatic effect, the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation that rolled on for several minutes.  

“Did the pandemic set us back? Absolutely,” said President Cornish. “Are we still a world-class institution, rooted in the liberal arts and sciences tradition with amazing professional schools? Absolutely. To soar, we will champion our students and faculty, build upon resources and lessons gained over COVID, and follow my personal tenets: Connection, Intention, and Care. We will become distinctive by the ways in which we connect, by the ways in which we are intentional, and by the ways in which we care for one another.”  

Ithaca Together: A Celebration of Ithaca College
  • College Marshal Barbara Adams, IC’s longest-serving current faculty member, carried the ceremonial mace. 
  • Staff Marshal Karen Armstrong is the longest-serving staffer (39 years).  
  • Faculty Marshal was Chris McNamara ’81.  
  • Ithaca’s ROTC cadets presented the colors, and the National Anthem was sung by student Hannah Doll ’23.  
  • Reverend Hierald Osorto offered the invocation. He served as the founding director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Executive Director for Student Equity and Belonging.  
  • The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers led the singing of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with the Ithaca College Chorus and Concert Band.  
  • The Ithaca College Alma Mater—“Ithaca Forever”—was performed by Ithaca College Choir and arranged by Professor Emeritus Dana Wilson. 
  • Grace Madeya ’23, president of the Student Governance Council, presented Cornish with “our affirmations of well wishes in support of your presidency.” 
  • Senior Sam Levine invited Cornish (and the audience) to view a mini documentary about her life growing up in Baltimore that was produced by his fellow students in the Roy H. Park School of Communications. 
  • Staff and faculty members Vikki Levine, Karen Walls, Jack Powers and Nia Nunn performed a skit, turning the stage into a kind of Oscar-like awards show, presenting awards to Cornish and entertaining the audience. 
  • Representatives from Cornish’s hometown football team—the Baltimore Ravens—offered their congratulations via video: Public Relations Coordinator Dan Horowitz ’19 and tight end Ben Mason, whose father Robert is a 1988 alum and brother Dan is a senior tight end on the Bombers football team. 
  •  Goucher College Education Studies Department Chair Ann Marie Longo celebrated her “colleague, sister and friend” as a trailblazer. She noted that Cornish earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Goucher and then returned as the only full-time African American faculty member.  “Her students were inspired by her enthusiasm and passion for teaching and her ability to teach them to think critically but also to feel deeply. Overwhelmingly, however, is their consistent agreement that being her student changed their lives!” 
  • Son Wayne Cornish celebrated his mother and her love of music: “I always knew when my mom was home. I’d hear her singing quietly, or I could hear her jazz playing in our home.” 



Family and friends, including Cornish's son, Wayne Cornish (center), cheer her on during the Inauguration Ceremony. (Photo Credit: Dave Burbank)

“‘Blessed’ is truly the most accurate description of how I feel. I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of enthusiastic support I’ve received since my appointment as president was announced, and yet this morning’s celebration is less about me, and more about celebrating this historic moment in the college’s history,” Cornish said. “As the 10th president of this institution, I am committed to building on the work of my predecessors to realize an accessible, truly transformative educational experience for all wishing to study on South Hill.” 

Cornish also thanked her wife, family and supporters as well as the many faculty and staff who planned the event, which included a flash mob of IC a cappella groups singing Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” with its jubilant refrain: “You can feel it all over.”  

“Thank you to our students whose talent, creativity, and drive inspire me every day,” she said before repeating a theme of her presidency: “You already know…you are our ‘why.’”  

Cornish and Pollack

President Cornish sits with Cornell University's President Martha Pollack during the Inauguration Ceremony. (Photo Credit: Dave Burbank)

She thanked IC’s African Drumming and Dance Ensemble, Brass Choir and Jazz Ensemble, as well as the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers and Dr. Baruch Whitehead. “It is truly humbling to be in the presence of so much incredible talent,” she said. “Thank you for elevating this celebration to a place of profound joy.” 

Traveling from East Hill to South Hill to offer remarks was Cornell University President Dr. Martha Pollack.  

“From the first time I met President Cornish, it was clear that she had a vision that aligns with Ithaca College’s priorities, emphasizing student-centered decision making, inclusion, academic excellence, and culturally responsive teaching. President Cornish is really with and of this college, and I know that she will lead it to a bright future and a renewed commitment to excellence,” Pollack said. “IC is well equipped to pursue its mission of educating, engaging and empowering bold thinkers through theory, practice and performance.”  

Let’s Make It Official

At the end of the installation ceremony, David H. Lissy ’87, chair of the Ithaca College Boat of Trustees, came to the podium to talk about the many strengths of IC and its new president. 

“Having weathered depressions, recessions, pandemics, and world wars, IC has proven itself resilient all the while adapting to changing times and attracting new generations of educators and students who seek to change the trajectory of their lives and embolden the impact that they make on the world,” Lissy said. “There are certainly many challenges that lie ahead for us; however, this institution has so many strengths and the Board of Trustees and I have great confidence that under your leadership this community can work collaboratively to unlock its full potential.” 

Cornish and Lissy

Lissy celebrating with Cornish after presenting her with the President's Medallion of Office. (Photo Credit: Dave Burbank)

Cornish was then ceremonially presented with the Ithaca College mace by John Nolan ’77, Parent '01, vice chair of the Board of Trustees, that displays the words “Commitment to Excellence” and has the college seal on all four sides. 

“It reminds us all that here at Ithaca College the President serves as the authority to lead the College with excellence,” said Nolan. 

Lissy then called on Cornish’s spouse, Deb Ptak; her son, Wayne; her brother, David; Staff Trustee Casey Kendall; Faculty Trustee Baruch Whitehead; and Student Trustee Alexa Rahman '24 to join him in presenting the Medallion of Office to Cornish. 

“The President’s Medallion of Office given to you signifies your authority but also symbolizes your becoming part of Ithaca’s rich and accomplished history,” said Lissy.  “It is a reminder that your responsibility now includes working in the service of the College as a whole and safeguarding IC’s well-being for the future.” 

Coming Soon!

Stay tuned for an article on how students, staff, and faculty all worked together to make Inauguration happen!