Cornell's Adult University (CAU) traces its history back to 1964.

That year, Cornell trustee Les Severinghaus '21 told then Cornell President James A. Perkins that the time had come for alumni "to be led not by the hand, but by the mind" (Cornell Alumni News, March 1968).

These words inspired Curtis S. Reis and Ernie Stern, both class of 1956, to propose a continuing education program for Cornell alumni that would feature "a unique blend of intellectual challenge, cultural stimulation, and family recreation in a friendly and familiar setting"—and thus was born Cornell's Alumni University.

Under the directorship of Jack Hall (1968-70) within Alumni Affairs and Development, the first CAU on-campus summer course was held July 21–August 3, 1968. It featured two one-week programs for adults and children 3 to 18, with seminars for adults led by Professors James McConkey, Allan Feldt, John Freccero, and L. Pearce Williams.

Now, more than 50 years later, CAU continues to be one of the world's few university programs offering on-campus education vacations taught by faculty.

Building upon the success of the summer courses, Cornell's Alumni University offered the first of its off-campus study tours on April 6–8, 1971. This "Mini Education-Vacation" featured a "weekend of inquiry and escape" at Split Rock Lodge in the Poconos.

The program, "Tomorrow's World," featured professors Walter F. LaFeber (who discussed the shifting relationships of the world's governments) and Richard D. O'Brien (who spoke on the impact, or lack thereof, of technology over the past 50 years).

When CAU's second director, Michael McHugh '50 (1970–82), realized enrollment would reach capacity, he added two more faculty members—Mary Beth Norton, American history, and Tony Blackler, zoology—to help manage the seminars, which drew 147 participants (Cornell Alumni News, July 1973).

Off-campus offerings grew rapidly after that, with a trip to China being one of CAU's first international outings and Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes frequently leading programs during his tenure from 1977–95.

In 1980, responding to the growing popularity of CAU with non-Cornellians, the program was renamed Cornell's Adult University and moved to the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions.

Ralph Janis '66 served as CAU's next director from 1983-2007. In June 2001, CAU ventured into virtual space when Janis launched CyberTower, an online series designed to complement CAU's on-campus seminars and international travel adventures.

CyberTower featured short online seminars taught by many of Cornell's top faculty members. Initial offerings focused on subjects from archaeology, engineering, history, and literature to nutrition, paleontology, architecture, and wine appreciation. The online series also included interviews hosted by Glenn Altschuler, former dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions. CyberTower merged with CornellCast in 2010.

Catherine Penner '68 took the helm as CAU director from 2007–2019, followed by Lora Gruber-Hine, from 2019–present.

In March of 2020, Cornell University temporarily canceled all on-campus summer programming due to COVID-19. To maintain connections between Cornell faculty and participants, extend CAU's reach, and offer educational programming during the pandemic, CAU developed and hosted a series of free webinars for Youth and Adults during the summer of 2020. Recordings of these offerings are available online through Cornell's Video on Demand service.

CAU further grew its online presence in the winter and summer of 2021, providing synchronous and asynchronous course offerings taught by CAU faculty in collaboration with eCornell. (See "CAU offers online classes with Cornell faculty for adults and youth this summer" in the Cornell Chronicle.)

On September 1, 2021, CAU merged with Cornell University's Division of Alumni Affairs and Development.