Professor Randy Cornelius celebrates 42 years at Vassar

Maryam Bacchus/The Miscellany News.

Tucked away on the second floor of New England is the vibrant office home, to Professor of Psychology, Randolph Cornelius, affectionately known as Randy. I first met Cornelius last spring when taking his Individual Differences in Personality (PYSC-253) course. During our class lectures, he would often include personal anecdotes as examples of psychological concepts. His eccentric stories captivated my attention, and the class quickly became one of my favorites. Through his lectures, and later working in his lab, I got to know more about Cornelius. When he confirmed that he would be retiring at the end of this semester, I wanted to celebrate his long-standing dedication to Vassar.

Cornelius earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Florida in 1975. An avid reader, he started his undergraduate career interested in journalism and later moved to studying psychology to expand on an interest in the validity of Freud’s work. Cornelius explained that the young women who were the voluntary subjects of Freud’s early work had been sexually assaulted by family members, and thus the conclusions he drew about them wanting to sleep with their parents could have been misled. He disliked Introductory Psychology but later took an interest in Personality Psychology. Cornelius was encouraged by his mentor to apply to graduate school in order to pursue research. He then went on to earn a Masters and PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1979 and 1981, respectively.  

Post-graduate school, Cornelius set out with the intent of becoming a researcher. He was initially denied when he first applied for a job at Vassar, where his then-wife had accepted a post-doctoral fellowship. In a twist of fate, he was later hired as a Visiting Professor of Psychology in the Spring of 1982. As time went on, he found that he enjoyed teaching, especially at Vassar. It eventually became a part of who he was and he found that he loved it. The sense of belonging he felt has been a large part of what has kept him at Vassar long-term. “I trust my students [and] I love their sense of learning…The love of learning that some of them have, that’s what I had…Having the honor of helping students along…is just what I love,” he told me.

Cornelius’s life’s work has revolved around the study of crying. When he began researching the subject, he assumed there would be many previous studies to build off of, as it was likely to have been studied before. He quickly found that was not the case, and he had his work cut out for him. In his first study, Cornelius asked participants to describe the last time they cried in the presence of another person, whether it be happy or sad crying. The results of the study transformed the way he thought about crying, as he found that it was significantly related to attachment. Cornelius further explained that crying is a tool that humans are born with, as babies often cry to get the attention of adults and fulfill their needs. This is then carried on through the stages of development, and the repeated responses become the basis for how relationships are formed. His expertise in the area has been featured on an episode of NPR’s “Shortwave” podcast as well as in an interview with CBS’s Jim Axelrod

Outside of the Psychology Department, Cornelius has contributed to and taught in the American Studies and Cognitive Science Departments as well as facilitated the founding of the Environmental Studies Program. As a keen environmentalist, he has taught classes covering topics such as the climate crisis and mushrooms, the latter of which he has an affinity for. 

In addition to his academic work at Vassar, Cornelius and his wife Kathy were House Fellows for Cushing House from 1996 to 2000. He recounts that many students would drop by to visit the various pets they had. They enjoyed their time as House Fellows so much so that they later accepted the same position in Davison House from 2009 to 2012 with the goal that they would make Davi “the family dorm.” In their second year, there was a hurricane during first-year move in, and students were confined to their dorms. In an effort to make light of the situation, Cornelius and Kathy set up board games and card games, inviting students into their home. As the gathering grew, student musicians brought out their instruments and formed impromptu bands. Reflecting on the situation and the initial goal for the house, Cornelius commented, “It was just a wonderful couple of days and then that continued on through the life of the dorm when we were there.” 

Outside of the classroom, Cornelius played bass guitar in a band with former Professor of American Studies Tom McHugh. Music was one of the ways Cornelius was able to connect with the student body outside of the classroom, and the band became a mainstay of his time at Vassar. He recounted, “When students see you at a bar and you’re playing up on stage…and you’re chugging down some tequila, they look at you different when you come into class next time.” The band cycled through many members, including times when one or two students would be a part of it. 

In retirement, Cornelius hopes to continue his role as a teacher through writing. He wants to continue to contribute to the greater world primarily through climate change advocacy, personal and professional research and publications. Amongst other creative endeavors, he is working on an autobiography. He also hopes to spend more time visiting his kids and grandkids. 

When asked if he had anything he wanted to say to the community, Cornelius remarked, “Vassar’s been my home and I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life…[It’s] been my first and only job. It had some ups and downs, but who could want a better job [than] being surrounded by these smart, motivated, interesting students…This is heaven for me.”

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