The New Economic Powerhouse: Higher Education

It will be at least five years before the first buildings are completed for Cornell University's applied science and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island. Yet the project has already been heralded as a huge economic boon for New York City and perhaps the most important legacy of the Bloomberg administration.

It is easy to see why, since the ambitious venture strikes many chords at once. In an era when robust growth in the financial sector is far from guaranteed, the focus on commercial applications of new technology aims to diversify the city's economic base. In a region with a wealth of world-class universities, the introduction of a first-tier engineering school fills one of the few gaps in the New York area's academic portfolio. In a global economy where competitiveness is increasingly linked to innovation, the partnership should help attract faculty, students and entrepreneurs that will enrich the region's pool of intellectual talent. And in a city where any large real estate project generally spurs opposition, the prospect of a large new campus on Roosevelt Island has thus far generated little controversy.

The alliance of New York City, Cornell and Cornell partner Technion-Israel Institute of Technology also captures a wider trend in which cities and regions are increasingly looking to higher education to drive economic growth, and confronting a diverse set of challenges to more fully integrate these institutions into the fabric of existing neighborhoods. Both the potential and complexities of strategies that link economic growth to colleges and universities can be found outside the Roosevelt Island project and across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

On Long Island, a central strategy of the Island's Regional Economic Development Council is to overcome the geographic dispersal of its assets and create stronger physical and institutional links among research institutions — Stony Brook and Hofstra universities, Brookhaven and Cold Spring Harbor Labs — as well as private entrepreneurs and venture capital.

In Newark, N.J., the city has staked much of its hopes for revitalization around bringing higher visibility and leveraging greater economic benefits from one of the city's underappreciated assets, its concentration of successful colleges--New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, the University of Medicine and Dentistry and Essex County College.

City leaders in Stamford, Conn., are hoping to develop the local branch of University of Connecticut into an urban residential campus after observing the city of New Haven and Yale's successful revitalization of New Haven. If UConn won't expand, some say, Stamford will look to another university to put a stake in the ground downtown. Meanwhile, New Haven is orienting much of its downtown revitalization around a partnership with Yale

If the future of cities and higher education appear increasingly linked, the potential for conflict remains a strong countervailing force, as evidenced by the opposition leveled at both Columbia and New York University when they proposed substantial expansions of their constrained urban campuses. The tax-exempt status of most private institutions and negotiations over payments in lieu of taxes are perennial sources of tensions between colleges and their host communities. The housing and service needs of students and faculty can be at odds with neighborhood priorities, and the internal conflict between the education mission of colleges and universities and the goal of commercializing research can spill over into the public arena. There is also the ongoing issue of rising tuition rates and student loan debt, coupled with often diminishing state aid to state schools.

These and other issues will be explored at RPA's 22nd annual Regional Assembly on April 27 at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. A panel, "Universities and the Future of Cities," will include New Haven Mayor John DeStefano; Lance Collins, dean of Cornell's School of Engineering; Maxine Griffith, executive vice president for government and community relations at Columbia University; Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation; and Relina Bulchandani, global lead of connected real estate at Cisco Systems Inc. For further information, go to www.regionalassembly.org.