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Winning in the End

October 24, 2011

Over the past few weeks, the competition to secure New York City’s blessing -- along with a plot of land and up to $100 million of city-financed infrastructure improvements -- to build a new applied sciences graduate school in the city has unfolded like a chess match.

Prominent private research institutions, including Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Columbia, and Stanford Universities, have made it clear that they want a piece of what Mayor Michael Bloomberg is offering, and have poured significant financial resources and staff time into developing comprehensive proposals.  While all the proposals seem to address the requirements laid out in the 163-page request for proposals issued this summer, university administrators don’t know exactly what they can do to put them over the top.

So, patiently and methodically, competing institutions have released new information about their plans, finalized partnerships, and courted different constituencies in the city in an effort to make their pitch the most appealing to city officials, who will begin the process of selecting a winner after institutions file their proposals Friday. University administrators involved in the competition said they think their international partnerships, deep ties to the city, or low price tags will help them secure the city’s blessing and resources.

“This is a very formidable field. I don’t for a second underestimate the competition,” said Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which will be submitting a proposal in a partnership with Cornell. “We’re not certain that we will win it for sure, but we are very hopeful.”

The institutions interested in the city’s offer have split into two distinct camps, with some teams proposing large, expensive new campuses that would be built on one of the city’s three proposed sites and would likely require significant investment by the city and the institutions, and others – mostly universities already located in New York City -- proposing smaller bids, typically an extension of programs they already offer or previously planned expansions, that could be up and running quickly and would likely not require the city’s land or much municipal investment.

The competition – driven in large part by Bloomberg – is designed to spur high-tech companies outside the biomedical sector. City economic officials say its industries such as telecommunications and information technology underdeveloped compared to other areas of the country. They want an institution that has a track record in technology transfer and is focused on research and graduate-level instruction, particularly applied sciences and engineering.

While 27 institutions responded to the original request for expressions of interest this spring, the universities that said they would file proposals by Friday are Cornell and Stanford, which fall into the large, expensive category, and Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, and a consortium led by New York University, which fall into the smaller-bid category. Several institutions that responded to the city’s original request for expressions of interest, including the Stevens Institute of Technology, Purdue University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Chicago, said they are no longer pursuing proposals, but would not elaborate on why.

It is possible that other institutions that responded in the first round, particularly foreign institutions, could submit bids, but they have not expressed interest since the original round. The request for proposals leaves open the possibility that an institution that did not respond in the original round could apply if it met criteria that included high rankings in engineering programs, an endowment of at least $1 billion, and a track record of spending a minimum of $75 million dollars annually on research in fields related to the proposed program. But the criteria limit the possible institutions to a small pool.

The reason why the proposals have split into two groups, competitors say, largely arises from the structure of the competition.

Cornell and Stanford, the two institutions proposing large new campuses, have attracted most of the headlines, and many involved in the competition say they are frontrunners. Administrators at each institution say they see the other as their primary competition, and institutions in the second group say that if the city wants a brand-new campus, Stanford and Cornell are in the best position to provide that.

John H. Coatsworth, Columbia’s interim provost, who is spearheading the university’s proposal, said the competition is structured to draw an institution from outside the city, since the benefits that would be provided to the winner – land and money for infrastructure improvements -- aren’t that useful for city-based institutions.

“The way the RFP is structured, the incentives it provides to respond to it, favor institutions that are not here already,” he said. “We could, over the next 10 years, provide more economic development, do more research, spin off more businesses than any of our competitors, and even demonstrating that this is the case, we may not win the competition.”

Because Cornell and Stanford’s plans are the largest and most involved, and because many think they stand the best chance of winning, announcements they made about their proposals in recent weeks have attracted significant attention. The first came from Stanford, which announced Oct. 11 that it would be partnering with the City University of New York, and in particular the City College of New York. The second big announcement was of Cornell’s partnership with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

While both institutions were perceived to have strong bids on their own, the partnerships add factors that could weigh in the city’s final decision and compensate for perceived shortcomings.

In the case of Stanford, which is located almost 3,000 miles from New York City in Palo Alto, Calif., the partnership with the City College gives the university a presence in the city, a location to get programs up and running while the proposed campus undergoes construction, and access to underserved populations.

Stanford, which earlier this year received a $10 million National Science Foundation grant to launch a curriculum in innovation and entrepreneurship, will demonstrate the program at the City College. The university hopes ideas gleaned through the program can be applied to engineering schools across the country. If Stanford is selected by the city, it would use the college as space to launch its new programs, offering joint bachelor’s and master’s programs with the college.

Twenty percent of the selection will be based on “Institutional Connections to the City,” according to the request for proposals. “Proposals will be judged on how the amenities of the project, the proposed urban design and proposed partnership programs reach out to the surrounding community and the city’s disadvantaged residents and promote openness and interaction,” the RFP states.

Lisa Lapin, Stanford’s assistant vice president for university communications, said developing a partnership with CCNY that could serve underrepresented students was a major reason for the pairing. “The college is linked to a talent pool exists in New York that might never think about attending Stanford,” she said. “Getting underrepresented minorities and students who are the first in families to go to college into high tech fields is a national priority, and we need to encourage more diversity in the engineering field.” City College also appears to be the only New York public institution involved in the competition, which could help the bid.

Unlike Stanford, Cornell already has a presence in New York City. Its medical school and several other programs are located in Manhattan, and a large number of Cornell alumni live and work in the city.

But Stanford, many observers say, has a demonstrated track record of leading an economic transformation, which makes up 40 percent of the selection criteria. In particular, Stanford claims that it has transformed a particular region, Silicon Valley. While Cornell has a track record of student, faculty, and alumni entrepreneurs and commercialized research, its impact has been more diffuse.

But Technion’s track record of developing high tech industries in Israel more closely resembles Stanford’s. Many credit the institute for almost single-handedly developing Israel’s high-tech economy. New York even reached out to Technion when it was researching how it should structure the competition, the institute’s president said.

Technion, which expressed interest in the first round, realized it could not finance the project on its own, and was only going to submit a bid if it had a U.S. partner. As a state-owned institution, it is prohibited from making the kind of financial investment that private universities can make. Because of that, Cornell will finance the development, but the universities’ plans call for governance and operation responsibilities to be shared equally.

The Technion partnership also gives Cornell, already a strong academic program, even more heft. Technion faculty claimed two Nobel Prizes in 2004, and Daniel Shechtman, a Technion materials science professor, received the chemistry prize earlier this month. Lavie said the timing could not have been better. “I wanted to send the Nobel committee flowers,” he said.

When the universities do submit proposals on Friday, they will be prohibited from discussing any details about their plans other than what is already known publicly, such as the fact that both are planning to build campuses of close to 2 billion square feet on Roosevelt Island.

The competitors that aren’t Stanford or Cornell, a group that includes Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, and a consortium led by New York University, are all proposing much smaller initiatives, but their programs also don’t come with the heavy price tag.

“There’s another characteristic to this whole competition, and that is that we are not asking for a lot of money,” Coatsworth said. “And we’d be moving faster than any of the others.”

Components of the economic impact and feasibility portion of the selection criteria – which make up the remaining 40 percent of the evaluation – include the projects’ timelines and how much they are asking of the city, areas where local competitors might have an edge.

Columbia is seeking assistance for a project that that has been under way for about a year, an 18-acre expansion of more than 7 million square feet. It has already secured permits and construction approval. Plus, unlike Stanford and Cornell, Columbia already has a comprehensive university in the city. “If the mayor wants to get something done fast that comes with a high level of quality and a full-service university to complement the expansion, Columbia would be the place to go,” Coatsworth said.

The proposal put forth by New York University, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Toronto, and Britain's University of Warwick would focus on developing a center for urban science.  Carnegie Mellon is also preparing a separate bid with Steiner Studios, the largest film and television studio outside Hollywood. Steiner is adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one of the sites offered by the city. Both groups have shared few details about their proposals.

Administrators at all institutions and representatives from the city have said throughout the process that they believe the final selection will come down to a thorough review of the submitted proposals, and that until a winner is selected it's anybody's game. "The city's playing this one straight," Coatsworth said.

While the city has said it would not be opposed to investing in multiple winners, because both Stanford and Cornell are shooting for the same locations, and because both will likely require investment from the city, it seems unlikely that the city would pick both. But university administrators say it’s possible that the city will invest in one of the major campuses and support some of the other bids.

The competitors are not allowed to lobby City Hall. Potential respondents had until Oct. 7 to submit questions to the development corporation. But aside from that contact, the universities have been prohibited from having conversations with New York City officials.

That has not stopped the institutions from trying to gain support from local groups in the city. Not only have the institutions hire consultants to help them understand real estate and development in the city, and lawyers to examine proposals, they have also hire public relations firms to engage with the community. “We are working with consultants who are helping us identify communities and understand constituencies in New York,” Lapin said.

Cornell administrators said the university is holding regular events in the city, generating alumni and student support, and engaging with the surrounding community. "The entire initiative needs public support," said W. Kent Fuchs, provost at Cornell. "A new university campus needs the community where it is located supporting it."

 

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