October 29, 2012

The Emperor’s New School

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If the press releases from the University are to be believed, we’re building a Roosevelt Island campus in New York City. It will cost well over a billion dollars to build and feature an enormous lilypad of solar panels.The campus will be the birthplace of new and innovative technologies that will make our society greener, healthier and happier. It will inspire innovation and collaborative thinking with awe-inspiring views of the East River and wide open spaces for collaboration. It will manage to artificially develop, in less than 30 years, the Eastern copycat of the valley that brought us the transistor, the microprocessor and the modern Internet.I don’t get it, for one main reason. In all the visions and all the plans, something sticks out. Dramatically. NYC Tech has no new wet lab space.If students affiliated with NYC Tech want to build, implement or study a technology that’s going to live outside of a computer, they will have to take advantage of the famous collaboration with Weill Cornell Medical College and cross the East River. Anyone who has ever had to carry a lab sample for more than one flight of stairs will recognize that this will be an enormous pain. The ordeal of getting across the river aside, anyone who makes the trek is going to have to compete with a bevy of M.D.s and Ph.D.s who have their own agendas to complete and their own experiments to run. And no one is more territorial than scientists who think they’re going to lose lab space.I say this somewhat jokingly, but the point I’m trying to make is dead serious.“Technology and Applied Sciences” is a vague phrase, and it can mean a lot of things. As far as I can tell, the vision for this campus has picked the most cramped and shortsighted definition. If you think this campus is going to benefit engineers, think again. The College of Engineering is a big school. This campus is going to benefit a very specific subset of engineers.If you’re the kind of engineer who wants to write some nifty computer programs with your MacBook while “shooting the technological breeze,” you’re golden. But, if you want to mix the contents of two beakers together in the name of science then you’re S.O.L. The Tech campus is not interested in you. Can we just review that concept for a sec? A glittering new campus (with half a million square feet of open space) promises to be a mecca of science and technology without actually providing any space to do science or develop new technologies.*Am I wrong in saying that this campus is built solely for the benefit of a field whose poster child is Mark Zuckerberg? Or to notice that the strongest spokesperson that the Greatest City on Earth could conjure up to comment when we first announced this campus was the hoodied-and-sneakered founder of tumblr?I don’t mean to say that Facebook and tumblr and the rest of insta-crowdsourced social media cloud 2.0 technology aren’t necessarily powerful or worthwhile products. I get it. There’s a lot of money to be made and interesting things to notice about human behavior, especially when a critical mass of people are carrying iOS devices. But I start taking issue when the University that I love commits 30 years, a reputation and colossal amounts of money to climbing into someone else’s bandwagon.Cornell has a strong tradition of bridging the gap between theory and science. Many, many small companies have had their roots in our academic departments, and a healthy number of them have been quite successful. But a healthy number have also required wet lab space, and lab space can be hard to get. Building a new campus that explicitly ignores our strengths in the fundamental sciences and disregards our past successes, in favor of chasing the glitter of someone else’s reputation, is just the tiniest bit shortsighted.The Tech campus has admirable elements to its vision. Lowering the barrier to entry for an entrepreneur with a sound premise to jump in is a good thing. Providing an industrial as well as an academic advisor from day one is bound to make someone’s education more powerful. But in what universe is an entire campus in Manhattan necessary to hack together projects?The field that this Tech campus benefits enjoys the lowest possible barrier to entry for building stuff. All that’s required is a couple hundred dollars’ worth of computing power, a good Internet connection, and the healthy entrepreneurial delusion that your work has the power to change the world. And thats the point. This Tech campus isn’t serving a need that requires … well, Cornell. It serves the need of someone who’s panicked that they’re getting left behind.Of the universities that put in a bid to build Silicon Valley East, a small university with more than triple our endowment, and the architects of the original, would have been the obvious choice. But it ended up being us instead for a variety of reasons, and key among those reasons was that our plan was the most ambitious. I was delighted when this campus was announced. I thought it made a statement about Cornell’s abilities and our determination. I thought it would nurture and develop the talents of our Ithaca campus. I thought it would provide opportunities that would foster a widespread cultural change towards our idea of success and the power of an education.I just didn’t think that it would leave me out.

*quibble over the definition of “technology” as much as you want, I will not cede that writing an app is on par with anything that requires a fume hood.

Deborah Liu is a senior in the College of Engineering. She may be reached at deborahliu@cornellsun.com. First World Problem appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Deborah Liu