In 2012, when Cornell Tech first opened its doors at a temporary location housed in Google’s Chelsea office, they could not have thought it, not in their wildest dreams. In 2017, when Tech’s state-of-the-art campus on Roosevelt Island went online, they could not have imagined it. After all, Cornell Tech was then, and remains today a project largely in its infancy — the campus itself is not slated for completion until 2043. It’s still a work in progress.
And yet, in the largest windfall for Tech since it was greenlit by Hizzoner Mayor Bloomberg seven years ago, Amazon has elected to construct its much-heralded HQ2 within a stone’s throw of the Roosevelt Island campus. This move opens the door to exciting new academic and commercial possibilities for students and faculty at Tech, and will no doubt launch the nascent graduate school to the top of any potential applicant’s list (and more than a few rankings lists as well, we’d imagine).
Cornell Tech advertises itself as the place to be for entrepreneurially minded STEM student, and such close proximity to the world’s second-largest company — a tech one, at that — is an incalculable asset to the institution. There is ample reason to believe that Cornell Tech played a role in drawing Amazon to New York City — The New York Times notes that company executives toured the Roosevelt Island campus with city officials during the selection process — and we hope that both Amazon and Tech will develop a productive relationship once HQ2 actually comes to fruition. (It certainly won’t hurt that Cornell Tech Dean Daniel Huttenlocher currently sits on Amazon’s board of directors.)
Some words of caution for Cornell. Over the past year, Amazon has been the singular focus of a remarkable wooing campaign from states and cities all over the country. Governors and mayors have embarrassed themselves on an international stage attempting to seduce the Seattle behemoth to choose them, New York’s Andrew “Amazon” Cuomo not excluded. These cities have offered billions of dollars in incentives to Amazon. The New York figure stands at over $1.5 billion, and it’s far from clear that investments of such size are truly in the city’s best interest. Cornell must not similarly debase or short sell itself in any relationship with Amazon. The administration needs to remember that its function is to serve the students and faculty, not to chase stars. Amazon has much to offer Cornell Tech, but Cornell Tech has just as much to offer Amazon, and any future partnership must reflect that.
Furthermore, there is the growing question of HQ2’s effect on the existing Queens community. From The New York Times Editorial Board to Congresswoman-elect and progressive darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens), New York power players have expressed concern about the lack of community involvement in the decision, and the wisdom of such expenditure by the city when infrastructure is still lacking and longtime residents are increasingly being priced out of their homes.
When Cornell inaugurated the Roosevelt Island campus, we wrote that “Cornell Tech would do well to remember that technological advancement does not come without cost…Cornell Tech is obligated to account for such effects when introducing advancements.” We believe that sentiment to hold true in this case. Even as Cornell seizes on the opportunities offered by HQ2, it must remember the costs associated with HQ2’s introduction in the city and make efforts to mitigate them. To the extent that Cornell Tech can help extract concessions from Amazon while negotiating potential partnerships, it should. And they should also turn some of that entrepreneurial spirit to building up the Queens community that already exists across the river, not just the one that Jeff Bezos is going to build.