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Heavy Lifting vs. Spectral Presence in Global Higher Ed
May 9, 2012 - 10:23am

As I shuffled through the morning paper today, supping a much needed cup of coffee, I came across a story about the innovative architect Thom Mayne (of Morphosis) being selected to design the first building of Cornell University’s Applied Sciences NYC campus. This unique development initiative, outlined in detail here ('Unsettling the university-territory relationship via Applied Sciences NYC'), is rolling forward with considerable speed.

Since Cornell (with Israel’s Technion) won the competition in December 2011, a Cornell/Technion leadership team was appointed in February 2012, and Andrew C. Winters (formerly of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Office) was appointed to “lead the physical development process."

Taken together, the involvement of a skilled and high-powered leadership team from both Cornell & Technion, along with a NY power broker (Winters), and highly qualified designers like Morphis as well as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (for the master plan), imply that this project is serious business.

CornellNYC Tech, “home of the Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute,” is really just the start of a broader development agenda, which includes the right to bring in other partner universities (and indeed non-university actors) from the US and abroad to their Roosevelt Island campus.

What is interesting about this project, in comparison to one associated with another Ivy League school (Yale, which is working with the National University of Singapore to develop Yale-NUS College), is that the Cornell-led development process reflects a significantly deeper level of commitment to being grounded in the host city of the new campus. What do I mean by being ‘grounded’ and why might it matter?

Being grounded means establishing commercial, legal, material (including human), and discursive presence in the host city. It means being present such that one is entangled in the regulatory, socio-cultural, physical, political, and institutional landscape of the city. It is a form of presence that leads to being drawn upon, and drawing upon, others also present in that city. It means being knitted into development processes where traded and untraded interdependencies (that "take the form of conventions, informal rules, and habits that coordinate economic actors under conditions of uncertainty”) help bring the city-region development process to life.

In the Cornell process, their mission and objectives have led them to control and be fully responsible for all stages (apart from coordinating the bid and review process, which was guided by the New York City Economic Development Corporation) of the development process including:

  • The campus planning and design process
  • The physical development process
  • The research-led knowledge production process
  • The teaching and learning process (in classrooms, labs, etc.).

 

 

The process of publicly bidding to develop Applied Sciences NYC (see my summary of the bid process here), then getting deeply involved in campus and building design process, the actual development process, and academic planning for the complex, effectively sutures Cornell’s identity, and its future, to the global city of New York.

Given this stance to the development process, a large number of Cornell and Technion faculty and administrators will be present in NYC, which will lead them to form deep social relations with key actors in the city. Some of these social relations will be sought out, though many will be accidental, subject to the unruly laws of serendipity in the metropolis. Physical co-presence matters to the socio-economic development process in cities, and the lead university (Cornell) behind Applied Sciences NYC seems to recognize this, as did Technion and Mayor Bloomberg.

In the Yale-NUS College case, Yale’s mission and objectives have led them to gift their brand (‘Yale’) for a fee, while providing input to a NUS-controlled:

  • Campus planning and design process
  • Physical development process
  • Teaching and learning process (in classrooms, labs, etc.).

 

 

Of course the newly hired faculty will have business cards that say 'Yale-NUS College' on them, and promotional materials flag the Yale name everywhere (a point made in this insightful article by Karin Fischer), but this is really a Singaporean project. Two proxy measures of this are that (a) that the newly hired faculty will receive Singaporean contracts, and (b) graduates only receive a degree from the National University of Singapore (not even a dual degree, a now common option in global higher ed). Of course a few administrators will be seconded from Yale, but they will inevitably retain their tenured jobs back in New Haven, CT.

Yale is thus the equivalent of Wharton when it helped provide much of the intellectual and organizational guidance to develop Singapore Management University (est. 2000), except for the fact that Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania did not sell the Wharton/Penn brand, nor did they play up their role in the SMU development process.

There are pros and cons to each model, of course, but I can’t help but wonder what the direct and indirect implications will be of Cornell’s higher level of material and non-material commitment to their new global city venture versus that being undertaken by Yale (at least in a spectral sense) in its newly adopted global city. Being present while being absent provides some latitude of freedom to reduce risk, and cost, but as INSEAD’s presence in Singapore demonstrates, and as Cornell and Technion’s presence in New York indicates, there are a myriad of rewards to being present - to be seen to be contributing, to be seen to be sharing the costs, to being on the ground, and to be demonstrating a medium- to long-term level of confidence in risky experiments in global higher education/global city development.

Kris Olds

 

 

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