The responses are in to NYC’s ‘applied sciences campus’ RFEI

Three years ago, when the merger between NYU and Polytechnic University was just under way, I wrote a well received opinion piece arguing that aggressive development of New York City’s university-based engineering research programs might prove key to its ambitions to become a center of technology-based business development. I even argued that competition in this arena (between NYU-Poly and Columbia) would be salutary. Apparently, someone was listening, but not exactly in the way I expected!

Some months ago, New York City issued a “request for expressions of interest,” seeking to identify academic institutions anywhere in the world that might want to develop what the City called an “applied science and engineering research campus.” Today, the City announced that it had received 18 expressions of interest, and clearly had met its goal of stimulating worldwide interest. Represented in the pool were a number of strong U.S. institutions (some being usual suspects, and others a bit of surprise) and also institutions in Canada, France, Finland, India, Israel, Korea, Switzerland, and the U.K. Pretty impressive!

The obvious question is why even try and bring in outside institutions — as good as they might be — rather than get behind the growth ambitions of the three largest in-city engineering research programs? Why start from scratch when you can build on gathering strength? Engineering is engineering, and it can be done well or badly, with strong commitment to industrial partnership or not, but there’s nothing magic about Stanford, Cornell, Purdue, or Carnegie Mellon. It’s about size, scale, momentum, and institutional leadership, and the home teams will always be larger than the NYC “satellites” of institutions based elsewhere. So why the competition? No one has been able to give me a good answer, so what follows is purely my own speculation. Feel free to contradict me in the comments.

I don’t believe that the City was somehow unconvinced by the ambitions of the three home teams or that it concluded they would never grow as large or aggressive as required. This just does not ring right to me. In fact, Columbia’s engineering school is already growing rapidly, and will have a substantial presence in the university’s new Manhattanville campus (about which I’ve also written); NYU’s Polytechnic Institute is starting to gather an impressive head of steam under Poly’s new corporate control by NYU, and ever-stronger collaborations with programs at Washington Square and the Medical School; and CUNY’s engineering R&D programs are thriving at last under the system’s new emphasis on science and research.

So what’s going on? Why not roll with existing momentum? Here is my theory. The City RFEI suggested, but did not require, that proposers consider the idea of developing their campus on any of several priority sites in which the City itself is seeking to develop. These included Governor’s Island, Roosevelt Island, and other sites which I think could mostly be classified as relatively “difficult” development prospects. Most or all had substantial infrastructure needs and access challenges.

It is true that the City had already conceded that it was prepared to subsidize the cost of the applied sciences campus wherever it might be developed, but I’m guessing that in private discussions that preceded issuance of the RFEI, the City was unable to come to agreement with Columbia, NYU or CUNY on what an appropriate cost share would be for the preferred sites. In the end, universities want to reserve their fund-raising capacity for substantive needs such as facilities, faculty endowments, and even commercialization programming — and not be forced to co-invest with the City on infrastructure or other non-core needs. What may have seemed to the City like a generous offer of subsidy may have seemed less so to institutions viewing the totality of the costs.

I’m guessing that the City economic-development apparatus, led by sharp-elbowed former i-bankers and management consultants, ultimately tired of these negotiations and decided to pressure the home teams by opening up the competition. You can imagine this posed a complex set of academic political decisions. You’re the president of Stanford. Do you knowingly tick off the presidents of two peer institutions in New York City by poaching on “their” turf? Apparently, yes!

As the City now proceeds to prepare a formal RFP based on its review of these expressions of interest, non-local institutions that liked the idea of a New York City campus in theory will have to decide if they can live in actuality with the cost-sharing regime offered by the City, and the total anticipated costs, any better than the home teams could. And from what I can see, there are no universities from oil-rich nations among the offerors. . . .

The other academic/political problem this episode raised was for the home teams. How exactly do you respond when it’s been made clear that your private offers have been unacceptable? It turns out that Columbia, NYU, and CUNY all did respond to the public RFEI, but only in the context of consortia. Each one participated in two different consortia, in varying permutations with other institutions, mostly domestic, and clearly spanning diverse technology thrusts. This is pretty smart, it seems to me, because it forces others who may not have been involved in earlier, private discussions, into the mix, and exposes them to the same realities.

In the release, even Mayor Bloomberg said, “The day when a new campus opens its doors is still far down the road” — no kidding! I wish the City and all the competitors (local and distant) well and will follow the matter with continuing great interest.


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