150 Notable Books: In Our Own Backyard

At Cornell University Press, we strive to change how we think and act in the world, one book at a time. The world in question is sometimes the globe itself—for instance when we publish work on environmental policy and impacts that are not limited by borders. At other times, a book may pertain to key topics of history or politics in distant places such as Korea or Indonesia where geopolitics turns. And sometimes the subject matter is closer to home: New York State, the counties of the Southern Tier, and Ithaca.

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Among the collections of exemplary books that we are highlighting on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Cornell University Press, three books in particular show the importance of the regional in our publishing program across the decades.

Cornell was founded to have an impact on what we would call today the economic development, educational achievement, and quality of life of residents of New York State. The Cooperative Extension Service, a direct development of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act that paved the way to the funding and siting of the university in Ithaca in 1865, is the subject of Ruby Green Smith’s The People’s Colleges: A History of the New York State Extension Service in Cornell University and the State, 1876–1948. Published in 1949 (and reissued in 2013, with a foreword from Helene R. Dillard and a preface by Scott J. Peters, under our old Fall Creek Books imprint), the book chronicles the first years of the Extension and unapologetically champions its mission and praises its leaders. Smith’s book, written in the wake of the New Deal and World War II and anticipating a new mission for public education, was a frankly political document that meant to and did change minds and influence action at her home institution of Cornell and in New York State.

The People’s Colleges is a book full of compliments for the work of Cornell faculty, administrators, and students. When Cornell is at the center of change, however, sometimes the story is more complicated and criticism comes more readily than praise. In Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University, Donald Alexander Downs tells the story of how Cornell University was the battleground for the clashing forces of racial justice, intellectual freedom, and the rule of law in an era of social and political protest. His focus is on April 1969 when, during parents’ weekend, members of Cornell’s Afro-American Society occupied the Willard Straight student union building and marched out on Sunday the 19th, brandishing rifles and shouting: “If we die, you are going to die.” During that event, spanning April 18–20, Cornell became the focus of national attention and a catalyst for a much larger (and still unresolved) debate about racism, equity, justice, and freedom. The occupation on the East Hill campus was a telling and representative moment in a national movement, and Downs’s book (published in 1999 and issued in paperback, with a new preface, in 2012) provides a mix of eyewitness accounts, retrospective interviews, and analysis that serves to carry the productive controversy of 1969 into the twenty-first century.

In the early 2000s, Ithaca, Tompkins County, and the whole Southern Tier of New York State became a battleground in a new fight over resource extraction, economic development, and environmental protection. By 2010, the shale gas economy was booming and a new extraction technology, using hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas from shale stone and employing horizontal drilling to extend the scope of a single well, was achieving success in the Northern Tier counties of Pennsylvania. Tom Wilber, a reporter for Binghamton’s Press & Sun-Bulletin, developed his expertise on the science, politics, and policy of fracking (as the drilling technique is colloquially known) into a book just as the citizens and legislators of New York State were debating whether to allow the industry into the state. Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (first published in 2012 and then issued, with new material, in paperback in 2015) was praised as an accurate, balanced, and humane look at the stakes of and people involved in the then-raging debate. At a time when even-handed assessment was hard to find, Wilber’s book was a well-researched document that people looked to in order to frame their ideas and questions about land use and economic development.

Looking ahead to 2020 and beyond, Cornell University Press will maintain our tradition, exemplified by these three excellent works from across seven decades, of publishing books about the place we live and that change how we think about and act with respect to Ithaca, Tompkins County, and New York State. The world is large and the reach of Cornell University and Cornell University Press is global. Ithaca, however, remains our home and our work as book editors, designers, and publicists will always be connected to the concerns of our Central New York neighbors.


Michael J. McGandy is Senior Editor and Editorial Director of Three Hills, an imprint of Cornell University Press. As the acquisitions editor dedicated to the Empire State beat, he logs many miles visiting authors and attending conferences from Angola to Amsterdam (both in New York) and points in between.


150 Notable Books: In Our Own Backyard