January 18, 2012

Cornell’s Flashy, Expensive Mid-Life Crisis

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Everyone is familiar with the proverbial “mid-life” crisis. In an effort to prove his virility and sex appeal, a middle-aged man makes an extravagant purchase he can’t afford. Money better spent on home improvement or saving for his kid’s college tuition is squandered on something flashy and indulgent.

Approaching its 150th birthday, Cornell is going through a mid-life crisis. The NYC Tech Campus is our billion-dollar bright red sports car.

Support for Cornell’s bid to build the NYC Tech Campus was sky high in the months leading up to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s December decision. The Student Assembly unanimously passed a resolution supporting the bid. The Board of Trustees unanimously supported the bid as well. An online petition supporting the bid accumulated over 21,000 signatures.

Rhetoric abounds on why Cornell is the best candidate to build this campus: our track record of establishing satellite campuses, our top-rated engineering programs, our 50,000-strong alumni base in the New York metropolitan area. Advocates are also quick to point out the advantages this campus will confer to the city: an applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island could be a magnet for innovators and entrepreneurs and spur economic development.

Yet there has been a remarkable lack of dialogue on exactly how this campus will benefit Cornell. The S.A.’s unanimously passed resolution states, “Securing this opportunity would be a huge boon to Cornell University and especially Cornell Students,” but fails to elaborate on exactly why this opportunity is a huge boon. The S.A. notes that it has the “responsibility to examine any matters which involve the interests or concern the welfare of the student community,” yet the purpose of their ad hoc committee is merely to “unite students in support” of the project. Surely a billion-dollar investment merits close scrutiny by the S.A., not a makeshift cheerleading squad.

Video taken after the unanimous vote by the Board of Trustees shows President David Skorton flanked by trustees, waxing poetic on why Cornell should be Bloomberg’s choice. But conspicuously absent once again is why building this campus should be our choice. The much-ballyhooed petition was the same story. It elaborated on why Cornell would build a great tech campus, but failed to mention even one way this campus would improve the welfare of our student body.

No one has bothered explaining how this campus will benefit most Cornell students because it won’t. For sure, some students might be better off. Engineers may prosper with the advent of new facilities, new research opportunities, greater interaction with entrepreneurs and the business community and a strong foothold in the greatest city in the world. But should the interest of one segment of Cornell’s populace justify dumping money into the most expensive project Cornell has ever undertaken? Engineers already have the highest mean starting salary of all Cornell graduates by a large margin. Both our undergraduate and graduate engineering programs rank in the top 10, according to the U.S. News and World Report. What about the other 76 percent (the percentage of students who aren’t enrolled in the College of Engineering)?

An unspoken argument, perhaps too obvious to ever be articulated, is that increasing our exposure in New York City will raise our ranking and prestige. Yet no one has presented any evidence at all to support this assertion.

Cornell already has a major campus in New York City — Weill Cornell Medical College. A small fraction of students in Ithaca benefit from this resource, but most students are completely unaffected.

The same will be true of this tech campus, which could conceivably hinder our undergraduate engineering program by funneling money and faculty from Ithaca to newer facilities in Manhattan. While Bloomberg is offering up to $100 million toward infrastructure development, the very first phase of the project alone is projected to cost $250 million. The third and final phase is estimated to cost over $1 billion. While a $350 million donation is a nice nest egg, our endowment is only $5.2 billion. Unlike satellite campuses, endowments don’t simply multiply based on the whims of the administration. Any attempt to convince the Cornell student body that this campus won’t divert resources from our campus in Ithaca is asinine at best, and completely disingenuous at worst.

Far above Cayuga’s waters, there are more pressing needs that require our attention. Skyrocketing tuition, budget cuts for the humanities and student organizations, and an inability to pay our professors top dollar are all problems that likely wouldn’t take more than 20 percent of our endowment to solve. What we need is not a NYC tech campus; what we need is a sobering look in the mirror.

Purchases made during mid-life crises are almost always immediately regretted. Over the next 30 years, supporters of the campus will ignore the inevitable setbacks and budget overruns. Even as the patina of winning the competition fades, ears will remain deaf to any critique. It’ll take until 2037 to truly know if our investment was worth it. By then, hopefully, a new campus will have risen on Roosevelt Island and an old campus in Ithaca won’t have become dilapidated due to neglect (see Hall, McGraw). It’s too bad we chose to spend our money on what we thought we wanted, not what we knew we needed.

Jake Walter-Warner is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jow23@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Jake Walter-Warner