Why Does Pop Culture Like to Hate on Cornell?


“Andy, Cornell called, they think you suck.”

-Michael Scott (Steve Carrell)

I am an alumna of Cornell, class of 1999. I regard those four years of college as some of the greatest in my life. I received a top-notch education, met an array of smart, interesting, and hilarious people, and drank a lot of alcohol. I also met my husband at Cornell and so the two of us often wax poetic about our times there: about getting beers at Ruloff’s, hiking through the gorges (“Ithaca is gorges!”), and heading to the Commons for a great meal. Our daughter has been informed that she, too, will attend Cornell (a move ensuring that she most certainly will not attend Cornell), and we have been dressing the baby in Cornell gear in the hopes that he will get Big Red fever by osmosis. In short, we love Cornell.

Jude in his Cornell gear

So of course we were both delighted when one of our favorite comedies, The Office, gave Cornell a big shout out in the Season 3 premiere “Gay Witch Hunt.” It is in this episode that we first meet Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), Jim’s (Jon Krasinski) new co-worker at the Stamford, CT branch of Dunder Mifflin. During one of the show’s signature “talking head” interviews Andy tells us “I went to Cornell, ever heard of it?” This reference is used to provide the viewer with key information about this addition to The Office’s cast: Andy is threatened by his new co-worker, Jim, and believes that mentioning his prestigious alma mater will make him appear more impressive to the show’s fictional documentary crew. It doesn’t. Nevertheless, I gushed to my husband:  “I can’t believe they’re talking about Cornell!”

Over time, however, my enthusiasm for The Office‘s Cornell obsession began to wane. You see, Andy, like Michael, is both incredibly insecure and yet has an inflated sense of self.  He is a fool. A boob. The running joke about Andy’s Cornell name-checking is that it reveals his need to brag while at the same time demonstrating that he doesn’t have much to brag about at all. He thinks his Cornell degree is impressive but no one else does.

The series’ most extended Cornell reference occurs in “Employee Transfer,” when Dwight (Rainn Wilson) decks himself out in Cornell gear and proclaims that he will be applying to Cornell, all as a way to get under Andy’s skin. Andy decides to interview Dwight as part of the application process and the scene culminates with Dwight deciding to apply to Dartmouth instead since it is a “vastly superior school.” Indeed, Dartmouth is frequently ranked higher than Cornell, a fact which rankles many a Cornell undergrad. Things are starting to get personal, people.

All of this joking at Cornell’s expense got me wondering: did someone on The Office‘s writing staff know a Cornell graduate who was a total douchebag? Or was one of the show’s writers rejected from Cornell? [Note: a reader just informed me that the character of Andy Bernard is a tribute to former NBC president Kevin Reilly, class of 1984]. Or, is it possible that a Cornell degree has come to be a signifier for a particular kind of character? For example, the holy trinity of Harvard, Princeton and Yale are referenced when we are supposed to see a character as being particularly smart. MIT is used if that person is a science or math geek. If you’re smart but also a free-thinker? Then you went to Brown. And if your character loves to party? Then it’s Arizona State, Ole Miss, or any school with a good football team.

So does The Office have a bone to pick with Cornell? Or are they simply playing off of well-known Cornell stereotypes? Is Cornell synonymous with self-important fools who are not nearly as smart as they think they are? Let’s take a look at some of the other famous, fictional, Big Red alums:

1. The Simpson‘s Sideshow Mel

Mel first appears in the episode “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge ” as a replacement for the murderous Sideshow Bob. At some point it is revealed that Sideshow Mel is a graduate of Cornell University. Sure, he wears a bone in his hair and communicates via a slide whistle, but offstage he speaks in a lovely British accent (which means he’s smart, y’all!) and once played the role of Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He is also lactose-intolerant. Advantage: Cornell.

2. Up in the Air‘s Natalie Keener

One of the first things we learn about young, ambitious Natalie (Anna Kendrick), is that she is a recent graduate of Cornell University. By citing Cornell, the movie is not necessarily highlighting Natalie’s intellectual pedigree; that is what references to Harvard, Yale and Princeton are for. Instead, Cornell is meant to show us that Natalie is a hard worker, a striver, even. She is like a yappy dog that won’t shut up until you crouch down and pet it. Luckily, Natalie becomes more likable as the film progresses and we learn more about her life. In a way, Natalie needs to get past her life at Cornell (and the rigid blueprint she had for her life) in order to embrace what she wants. Advantage: Haters.

3. Ugly Betty’s Nick Pepper

I do not watch Ugly Betty. Or rather, I should say that I watched it once, thought it was awful, and have never attempted to watch it again. But from what I have read, the character of Nick Pepper (Max Greenfield) is a Cornell alum. And from what I have read about him, he is quite similar to The Office‘s Andy: he has an inflated sense of self, annoys his co-workers, and dresses in what he believes to be the trendiest of clothes. Normally, I would give this point to the Haters, but given that Ugly Betty is a terrible show, I am going to go ahead and call it a Draw.

4. Made of Honor‘s Tom Bailey

I don’t even need to describe this character, played by Patrick Dempsey, or his relationship with Cornell. The movie is called Made of Honor. Get it? Nope, I don’t either. Why substitute “Made” for “Maid”? Poor use of puns means Advantage: Haters.

5. American Pie‘s Vicky

Vicky (Tara Reid), one of the horny teenagers in this classic teen sex comedy, is headed to Cornell after graduation. Vicky is actually pretty likable: not too uptight, not too arrogant. Yes, she’s played by Tara Reid, but it’s pre-Taradise Tara Reid, so it’s Advantage: Cornell.

In conclusion, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Cornell’s screen image is. Certainly the Cornell screen image is not as solidified as Harvard’s or Penn State’s screen image. So for now, I’ll take the Andy Bernards and the Sideshow Mels as evidence that Cornell has some significance in popular culture. And that’s all we self-important, type A Cornell grads want in the end — a little recognition.

Cornell grads: can you think of any other prominent fictional Cornell alumni? If so, discuss below. And, of course, Go Big Red!

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36 thoughts on “Why Does Pop Culture Like to Hate on Cornell?

  1. Mindy Kaling, who plays Kelly on the Office, is also one of the head writers on the show. She went to Dartmouth. I think another writer or two also went to Dartmouth, where they got the mistaken impression that it was somehow superior to Cornell. Hence the Cornell jokes.

    If you ever watch the deleted scenes on the DVDs, almost every episode since Andy’s introduction originally included a Cornell joke.

    • I believe bj novak who plays ryan and is one of the shows writers went to Harvard. As for sideshow bob, conan o’brien was a writer for the simpsons and is also a Harvard grad, so maybe some harvard v cornell going on? And yes I realize how old this blog is.

  2. Can’t think of any references right now; but am reminded of the Keith Olbermann / Ann Coulter / State v. Ivy debate. Kind of funny, kind of cringe-worthy. I will say I was underwhelmed by the communications department (where I started), but hugely impressed with the English department (where I wound up). And, yeah, I think you’re probably right about a writer knowing a douchebag from Cornell. Not everyone can be as awesome as the Editor of the Lunatic. :)

  3. Two come to mind off the top of my head – Neil, the nephew of the owner, in Dirty Dancing. Sadly, I think this goes to the haters. Then, there’s my absolute favorite – John Travolta’s character in “A Civil Action.” Best line of the movie – what kind of Harvard man has never been to the Harvard Club? Response: The Cornell kind. He’s even wearing a class ring!

  4. If it makes you feel any better, 30-Rock has made of fun of Toofer’s pride in his Harvard pedigree (with Frank wearing a Harvard shirt just to irritate him, much like Dwight and Andy).

    Much of the Cornell “backlash” may come from Olberman (who never misses a chance to remind us of his pedigree).

    I was very excited that a Northwestern student was murdered on an episode of “The Good Wife” last season :-)

    • To add to Jeff – Grizz, Dot Com, and Tracy Jordan reference taking time to attend the Cornell Hotel School – and Tracy Jordan Chimes in “Das a Good Program” – whether or not that is a ++ Cornell or a hater IDK

  5. I believe Andy Bernard is based on former NBC president Kevin O’Reilly ’84 (now with Fox). He is a rah-rah Cornellian, and was the person who kept “The Office” on the air initially despite low ratings. As a tribute, the character of Andy Bernard was given the Cornell persona.

  6. As a member of the class of ’78, and a current parent, I have made an informal study of Cornell’s role in popular media over the years.

    Cameron diaz plays Christina Pagniacci, the owner of the football team the Miami Sharks in the movie “Any Given Sunday”, and the daughter of the last owner who built the franchise. Pagniacci is a Cornellian. Her character is relentlessly ambitious and rapacious. Charlton Heston, who plays the commissioner of the league, says to a colleague after a particularly unpleasant exchange with Diaz, “I do believe that that woman would eat her young”.

    I casually interpreted this to mean that Cornellians were relentlessly “on the make”; that we are not a part of the hidebound colonial establishment that founded America. Rather, we are the egalitarian representatives within the Ivy League. And, as a black man who is the great grandson of a slave, I can certainly live with that perception.

    There have been other references to Cornell in the popular media, many of them having to do with the Hotel School or the Engineering School, most of which are flattering.

    • It’s been a little while since I’ve seen that movie, but I think when they show the diploma in her office, it’s an MBA.

      I took this to imply that Pagniacci was opportunistic: she displays no undergrad or other graduate diplomas, suggesting an undergrad degree at some no-name state school. She does display her MBA, just to indicate that she’s an Ivy League alumnus.

      I don’t know what the easiest Ivy League degree would be to obtain, but I suspect an MBA from the largest Ivy would be pretty high on that list.

      (Cornell alum here.)

      • You assume an MBA from the “largest Ivy” would be the easiest, but the MBA program at Cornell (Johnson) is actually one of the smallest MBA programs, much smaller than its Ivy brethren– so that theory does not work

  7. I believe two of the writers for the original CSI were Cornell alums, and that one of th e main characters in CSI sports a Cornell sweatshirt at one point.

    It seems that when alums refer to the school, it is always in a positive sense.

  8. You forgot to mention one of the most famous references to Cornell in a movie – Say Anything:

    Say Anything – Cornell

    I saw the movie Say Anything during my first week of class at Cornell my freshman year at Cornell Cinema. The crowd went wild when this scene happened – one of my most vivid memories of Cornell.

    Olbermann’s reference to Cornell during March Madness – right before Cornell plays in the Sweet Sixteen –
    Countdown with Keith Olbermann [Cornell'79] – “We own this tournament :)”

    • Great link. The Starman reference is great. I thought it was Close Encounters, but no it’s Starman where the Astrobiologist was from Cornell. Back in the ’80s, when Carl Sagan became famous, most popular references to Cornell were very positive, mostly smart scientists like Sagan. This Andy character is obnoxious. I hope the Office gets cancelled soon.

  9. To follow up on the Bill Maher reference, Bill (I refer to him by his first name because we were classmates and I took EVERY class with him) has had “all Cornell” shows with Cornell alumni like Keith Olberman (’79) and Andrew Ross Sorkin (’99).

  10. Fictional Cornellians:

    • In 30 Rock, Fat Balls, a potential addition to Tracy Jordan’s entourage is studying hotel administration at Cornell University.
    • In Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, a hotel manager attended the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.
    • In Ally McBeal, Ling Woo was editor of the Cornell Law Journal.
    • In Altered States, Dr. Eddie Jessup, played by William Hurt, is a research scientist at Cornell Medical College.
    • In Annie Hall, Herschel Kominsky has a chair in philosophy at Cornell.
    • In Any Given Sunday, Christina Pagniacci, played by Cameron Diaz, graduated with an M.B.A. in 1996.
    • In American Pie and other films in the series, Vicky Lathum, played by Tara Reid, attends Cornell.
    • In Avenue Q, Princeton had a B.A. in English from Cornell in early drafts of the play, according to creator Jeff Marx.
    • In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Joseph Allen is an Ithaca, NY native and holds a B.A. in international relations.
    • In Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Newt Hoenikker is a Cornell pre-med student drop-out.
    • In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane, the film’s title character played by Orson Welles, was expelled.
    • In The Counterlife by Philip Roth, Henry Zuckerman, the novel’s central character, graduated from Cornell.
    • In Dark City (1950), Danny Haley, played by Charlton Heston, was an undergraduate from 1937 to 1941.
    • In Deception Point by Dan Brown, Gabrielle Ashe has a B.A. in Government.
    • In Dirty Dancing, Neil attends the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.
    • In Goats, many of the main characters attended Cornell.
    • In Just Cause, Bobby Earl, played by Blair Underwood, attended but did not graduate.
    • In Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst, Prince Hrubal of Northern Transylvania.
    • In The Lost Weekend, Don Birnam, played by Ray Milland, attended but did not graduate.
    • In Me, Myself and Irene, Irene Waters, the film’s title character played by Renée Zellweger, claims her major at Cornell was “Turf Management.”
    • In Made of Honor, Tom and Hannah meet at Cornell where Hannah studied fine arts.
    • In Megan McCafferty’s novels, Len Levy has an M.D from Cornell.
    • In Modern Family, Mitchell Pritchett is a graduate of Cornell.
    • In New Moon, Carlisle Cullen teaches at Cornell and Jasper Cullen studies philosophy.
    • In Numb3rs, Agent Sinclair is a graduate of Cornell.
    • In The Office, Andy Bernard, a new officemate from the Stamford branch, boasts that he attended Cornell, was in an a cappella group named “Here Comes Treble”, started a frisbee golf team, drank heavily, never studied and still graduated, on time.
    • In Over There, Pvt. Frank “Dim” Dumphy, played by Luke Macfarlane, is nicknamed “Dim” for being highly intelligent and earning a B.S. from Cornell, but ending up in the Army.
    • In “The Perfect Score”, the main character, Kyle, wishes to study architecture at Cornell University.
    • In The Prince of Tides, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, played by Barbra Streisand.
    • In Say Anything…, Sheila, played by Kim Walker, was admitted to Cornell and plans to attend.
    • In The Secret in Their Eyes, Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings is a Cornell alumna.
    • In Sex and the City, Velma Rudin, psychologist in the show’s second season, holds two Cornell degrees.
    • In The Simpsons, Sideshow Mel attended Cornell.
    • In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the character Diana attends Cornell.
    • In Spriggan, Rie Yamabishi has a B.A. in Linguistics.
    • In Starman, National Security Agency scientist Mark Shermin wears a Cornell sweatshirt.
    • In Step Up, Nora’s mother wants her to apply to Cornell if her dancing career fails
    • In Ugly Betty, Alexis Meade’s assistant, Nick, is a Cornell graduate.
    • In Up in the Air, Natalie Keener is a Cornell graduate.
    • In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski, the narrator, attended Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

  11. Don’t forget the 1960s Batman Television episode where Catwoman “goes to college” with her goons while operating out of a basement wearing Cornell, Brown, and Penn sweatshirts. Get it? Basement of the Ivy League?

  12. I sorry I do have to reply to this. As an employee of Cornell with a college degree from a state university, if I ever here how great Cornell is again I may vomit all over the person speaking such crap. Cornell does not have propriety education. I took classes at Cornell and did not find anything special about the work load or level of specificity. Chemistry is the same in state schools, they do not take you aside and say this is only for Cornell students. Other people are just as deserving of knowledge and an education. I think all graduates of Ivy leagues like to believe they are somehow special, unique, more intelligent. I know for a fact that is not true. I think they make fun of you because you set yourself apart from others, thinking you are somehow special. Special my ass. Everyone is special, get over yourself.

  13. At least three of the main writers graduated from Harvard (Michael Schur, B.J. Novak and Greg Daniels) one of whom (Greg Daniels) was the showrunner for the first few seasons and was also a writer on The Simpsons. I just always figured it was some playful teasing, lead by two Harvard alums. Also, John Krasinski (who plays Jim) is a Brown alum and Mindy Kaling (who plays Kelly and is also a writer) attended Dartmouth. That probably answers the Cornell jokes on The Office.

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