Cornell Tops Stanford with a Fantastic Stretch Drive

Wayback — Surprise Led the Way to Cornell Tech

David Stone
Bloomberg Center at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island
Bloomberg Center at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island
File Photo

September, 2017, Stanford University welcomed its first classes to a new idea campus on Roosevelt Island today…” was the lede I expected to write when I started following this story, six years ago. Cornell changed the storyline, however, and Roosevelt Island.

When Cornell Brought Roosevelt Island Along for the Ride

On a hot July afternoon in 2011, Dick Lutz, editor of the Main Street WIRE where I then freelanced, asked me to cover a press conference called by City Council Member Jessica Lappin.

During what was normally downtime for the WIRE and slack for most newspapers, I joined a scrum of reporters under the Second Avenue Tram Station. The sun was hot, but Lappin, as usual, was cool and calm.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she told us, was announcing City support to encourage bidders for the privilege of building a new, technology oriented campus. If all went as planned, the school would lead New York to become the East Coast digital pioneer and challenge Silicon Valley for international influence.

To attract high profile bidders, Bloomberg laid out a handful of locations where the City would provide support, including valuable infrastructure improvements. Along with Governors Island, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and others, the Roosevelt Island site of Goldwater Hospital, planned to be closed, was part of the pitch.

Somehow, I knew Roosevelt Island was going to win. I had an otherworldly kind of confidence about it. I was right, but I was wrong about which school would plant roots here.

Three days before a partnership between Cornell University and Technion got the call from Robert K. Steel, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, and Seth Pinsky, President of New York’s Economic Development Corporation, Stanford — the heavy initial favorite — dropped out.

Cornell’s experience and alumni support had blown them straight out of the contest.

Savvy Beats Laurels 

Expecting Stanford to win came naturally.

Stanford seeded much of California’s Silicon Valley, yielding multiples of genius in every graduating class. And Stanford was confident too, willing to set up a remote campus for the first time — after 130 years.

With EDC consistently touting details of Stanford’s developing proposal, while simply mentioning other schools, the public narrative had Stanford securely in first place and every other university, from Cornell to Carnegie-Melon and Columbia, runners-up.

But when I met with Stanford Vice President Lisa Lappin (no relationship to Jessica), she was cautious. Her school, she told me, was well aware that Cornell had, not just a firm foothold already in New York with Weill-Cornell Medical Center, but an estimated 50,000 alumni rooting for them.

Stanford’s decision to withdraw their $2.5 billion proposal, however, “had nothing to do with Cornell,” she told me.

We talked on the fly as she traveled home after cheering on her schools losing effort in the Fiesta Bowl. It was not a good weekend of Stanford.

The reasons she gave offered insight into why Cornell won running away — and why Stanford lost its lead.

EDC, she explained, asked Stanford to take responsibility for any problems encountered with land from which Goldwater was vacating, inviting open-ended risk in a once heavily industrial area when disposal of scrap material and chemicals was casual, if not careless.

The fear was well-founded. Just a few years before, RIOC discovered industrial waste under abandoned ruins that had to be remediated before opening Southpoint Park.

“The city also wanted us to accept responsibility for any delays in the project, no matter what caused them.”

Already getting cold feet, Stanfords lower extremities turned to ice when Mayor Bloomberg, in an unscripted speech at MIT, remarked,  "Stanford is desperate to do it -- I'm not exaggerating.”

“That didn’t sit well here,” Lappin conceded.

Experience paid off for Cornell but, even more, so did their gung-ho alumni.

Cornell’s take on negotiations contrasted with Stanford’s.

Tommy Bruce, Cornell’s Vice President for University Communications, told me,  “We went into the tech campus project with the full understanding that if the city was going to provide public land and public resources, they were going to want to make sure they are getting the best return for their investment.

“We know what a project of this scale requires and we would not have agreed to anything we did not think was achievable. Cornell’s experience building in New York City was certainly helpful to this project” he added.

But about those alumni — city officials later joked that they’d heard from all 50,000, eagerly supporting Cornell — but one stood out from all the rest.

Charles F. Feeney, Class of ’56, founder of Atlantic Philanthropies pitched in $350 million for constructing the campus and sealing the deal for Cornell.

Feeney made his fortune from Duty Free Shops in airports.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Mr. Feeney acknowledged through Atlantic Philanthropies, “to create economic and educational opportunity on a transformational scale.”

To say the least, and with the Roosevelt Island campus now up running with Dean Dan Huttenlocher at the helm, Cornell Tech is at work, making the most of that opportunity.

Stanford? They lost again, last weekend, getting thumped in the Alamo Bowl by TCU after leading 21 to 3.

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