Getting Technical

After an intense year-long process, Cornell has won the right to create an ambitious, industry-focused, two-million-square-foot applied sciences campus in New York City. To be built on Roosevelt Island, the endeavor is unfolding both on the fast track and over the long haul: its first classes will be offered this fall (in temporary rented space), […]

After an intense year-long process, Cornell has won the right to create an ambitious, industry-focused, two-million-square-foot applied sciences campus in New York City. To be built on Roosevelt Island, the endeavor is unfolding both on the fast track and over the long haul: its first classes will be offered this fall (in temporary rented space), but the $2 billion project won’t be fully built out for three decades. A look at how Cornell won, how its leaders are putting their shoulders to the grindstone, what it will mean for the wider University—and why not everyone is a fan.

After an intense year-long competition, Cornell won the right to build an applied sciences campus in New York City. So what happens now?

By Beth Saulnier

David Skorton

Dan Huttenlocher can be forgiven for being a tad hyperbolic in describing the communications firestorm that erupted when he landed at LAX on the afternoon of Friday, December 16. "When I turned my phone back on, it literally melted with texts, e-mails, and messages," Huttenlocher says, sitting in his Rhodes Hall office exactly one month later. "I had been in the air for hours, and it was like, ‘Where are you? Why can't I reach you?'"

As Huttenlocher—then Cornell's dean of computing and information science— soon learned, while he'd been en route from New York to L.A., the University's odds of winning the hard-fought competition to build a graduate technical campus in New York City had improved enormously. Out of the blue, its chief rival—Stanford—had dropped out. That was spectacular news for Cornell—though it put the kibosh on Huttenlocher's planned long weekend with family on the West Coast. "Basically," he says, "I got on a plane and flew back to New York."

By Monday, it was official: after an intense year-long process, Cornell had won the right to build an ambitious, industry-focused, two-million-square-foot applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island. At a press conference at the Medical college announcing the decision, Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who initiated the competition and had final say over the winner—called the campus "game-changing." And its ambitions are undeniably lofty: to transform how engineering is taught and practiced at Cornell; to raise the University's profile at home and abroad; to create a campus unlike any in the world; to foster a New York City tech economy to rival that of Silicon Valley. "By adding a new state-of-the-art institution to our landscape, we will educate tomorrow's entrepreneurs and create the jobs of the future," Bloomberg said. "This partnership has so much promise because we share the same goal: to make New York City home to the world's most talented workforce."

The University's bid for the project, formally dubbed CornellNYC Tech, was made in collaboration with the Technion, Israel's premier technical institute. But it's not a 50-50 split; the University is by far the major player. "The city has a contract 100 percent with Cornell," says Engineering dean Lance Collins. "We own the project and all of the risks associated with it." As Provost Kent Fuchs explains: "The physical campus is fully Cornell. Cornell will own the land and the facilities. We are putting in the funding to develop the site and the buildings, and therefore the campus is our responsibility." The Technion partnership lies on the academic side: while some students will earn graduate degrees from Cornell University, others will pursue a master's in applied science—in such fields as computer science, information science, and electrical and computer engineering—from the Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute, conferred by both institutions.

In addition to the rainmaking imprimatur of the Technion—whose alumni, Huttenlocher points out, have founded some sixty companies listed on the NASDAQ— Cornell had another ace in the hole: a $350 million gift to support the campus from Charles Feeney '56. A Hotelie, Feeney made a fortune with his Duty Free Shoppers stores and has gone on to give away most of it, inspiring wealthy people like Bill and Melinda Gates to do the same. Over the years, his Atlantic Philanthropies foundation has donated more than $600 million to Cornell; the $350 million gift brings that total close to an even billion. In a statement from the foundation, Feeney called the tech campus "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create economic and educational opportunity on a transformational scale."

NYC Tech will unfold on a generational timeline: it won't be fully built until 2037, at a total cost of more than $2 billion. But it's also designed to have a fleetof- foot, start-up mentality—and in that spirit, classes will begin this fall, a mere eight months after the deal was signed. Temporary space will be rented—in Manhattan, not on Roosevelt Island—and the two dozen or so students will be drawn from those already enrolled in graduate programs, with classes taught by Ithacabased faculty. "You can think of it like the Cornell in Washington program," says Huttenlocher, who has been tapped as the campus's inaugural dean, "except that instead of being in Washington and focused on politics, it's in New York and focused on tech."

The essential role of NYC Tech is as an applied sciences campus: it's all about facilitating the relationship between academia and industry. According to Huttenlocher, that reflects fundamental shifts in how higher education approaches computer science and engineering. "Twenty years ago, there were the people who did stuff in the real world and there were the academics in those fields, and the ties weren't all that strong," he says. "Some people went back and forth, but that wasn't the norm; in fact, in some ways time spent out of academia damaged your career. Now it's the converse, especially in computer science. Getting your research ideas out into industry is a huge plus for your academic career." But Cornell's isolated Upstate location has inherent limitations for partnering with industry. "Cornell produces technology at a rate commensurate with its stature and abilities," Collins says. "Tompkins County is a very small sponge to absorb that amount of activity, so what happens is that it goes flying all over the place. It isn't that we're not doing it—but when we do it we're feeding the Silicon Valley area; the Route 128 corridor in the Boston area; Austin, Texas; the North Carolina Triangle; and other hotbeds of technology, because they have that capacity."

So when Bloomberg announced the tech campus competition in December 2010—offering a sizeable plot of city land plus up to $100 million in infrastructure improvements—the University jumped at it. "The opportunity was perfectly aligned with what we wanted to do as an institution, so it didn't take long—like minutes— before we realized that we needed to go after this," Collins says. "There was a defensive side to it as well, particularly as Stanford came in very strongly wanting to land in New York City. There was the sense that if we didn't stand up to that, at some level we were conceding a huge amount to a competitor; in essence we were strengthening their hand and weakening ours at the same time."

In formulating the University's proposal— which had the enthusiastic backing of President David Skorton and the Board of Trustees, plus thousands of students and alumni—the major players were Fuchs, Collins, Huttenlocher, and Engineering associate dean Cathy Dove, MBA '84. In a process that Dove calls "incredibly intense, fast-moving, exhilarating, and challenging," they and their staff logged thousands of miles on the Campus-to-Campus bus and conducted innumerable meetings and fact-finding sessions; the University aimed to miss no opportunity to promote its plan. "At every step—and there were many steps— we tried to be the strongest," Fuchs says. "There was an expression of interest that was due in March; we did a lot of work on it and it was just like a full proposal. Then there was a presentation in July about our expression of interest, and we spent weeks working on that and rehearsing it. So we were really over-prepared— the whole team, everybody. There were big media events in the city. There were breakfasts. We wanted to have a Cornell presence; anytime there was anything about this campus, we were there. We would send representatives to shake the mayor's hand, to make sure Cornell was always visible."

Dan Huttenlocher

Huttenlocher alone met with some 200 members of the city's technology industry, asking what factors impede their business and how a university could help. "First and foremost was talent, just over and over again," he says. "They had the sense that the very best people in technical fields tended to move to the West Coast when they graduated." It's a chicken-and-egg problem: it's hard to draw talent to an emerging tech sector for the simple reason that it's not an established tech sector. "One of the defining characteristics of those places is that there is a lot of cross-company interaction among people," Huttenlocher says. "And that's critical, because in the technology sector, start-up companies play a huge role—but ninety-nine out of 100 start-ups go belly-up. So if you're thinking about a career, an individual start-up is the worst choice, because it's almost certain you'll be out of a job in a few years. But if there's a strong ecosystem with lots of start-ups, then it's a secure place to go, because somebody's always going to be hungry for your skills."

NYC Tech, which will feature office space for nascent businesses, is aimed to foster that sort of environment in New York City. As such, organizers say, it will have a different focus and feel from the Ithaca campus. The hope is that together, the two sites will offer the best of both worlds, to both students and professors. "We designed it so that it complements and doesn't duplicate the Ithaca campus," Collins says. "We think there are certain core strengths of being in Ithaca and there will be core strengths of being in New York, and faculty will want to be at one or the other—though some will go back and forth because of the nature of what they do. The New York campus is going to be focused on commercialization; it's a place to be an entrepreneur. Not every faculty member has that aspiration. For those who do, it will be like heaven because it will have a tight coupling with the venture capital world, lots of industry on campus, and students who have this interest as well; it's going to be a powerful engine. On the other hand, we do lots of fantastic research in Ithaca that doesn't fit that commercialization mindset. Longer-term research—activities that will be commercial thirty to fifty years from now—won't belong in New York either."