Heavy Lifting vs Spectral Presence in Global Higher Ed

As I shuffled through the morning paper today, supping a much needed cup of coffee, I came across a story about the innovative architect Thom Mayne (of Morphosis) being selected to design the first building of Cornell University’s Applied Sciences NYC campus. This unique development initiative, outlined in detail here (‘Unsettling the university-territory relationship via Applied Sciences NYC’), is rolling forward with considerable speed.

Since Cornell (with Israel’s Technion) won the competition in December 2011, a Cornell/Technion leadership team was appointed in February 2012, and Andrew C. Winters (formerly of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office) was appointed to “lead the physical development process.”

Taken together, the involvement of a skilled and high-powered leadership team from both Cornell & Technion, along with a NY power broker (Winters), and highly qualified designers like Morphis as well as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (for the master plan), imply that this project is serious business.

CornellNYC Tech, “home of the Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute,” is really just the start of a broader development agenda, which includes the right to bring in other partner universities (and indeed non-university actors) from the US and abroad to their Roosevelt Island campus.

What is interesting about this project, in comparison to one associated with another Ivy League school (Yale, which is working with the National University of Singapore to develop Yale-NUS College), is that the Cornell-led development process reflects a significantly deeper level of commitment to being grounded in the host city of the new campus. What do I mean by being ‘grounded’ and why might it matter?

Being grounded means establishing commercial, legal, material (including human), and discursive presence in the host city. It means being present such that one is entangled in the regulatory, socio-cultural, physical, political, and institutional landscape of the city. It is a form of presence that leads to being drawn upon, and drawing upon, others also present in that city. It means being knitted into development processes where traded and untraded interdependencies (that “take the form of conventions, informal rules, and habits that coordinate economic actors under conditions of uncertainty”) help bring the city-region development process to life.

In the Cornell process, their mission and objectives have led them to control and be fully responsible for all stages (apart from coordinating the bid and review process, which was guided by the New York City Economic Development Corporation) of the development process including:

  • The campus planning and design process
  • The physical development process
  • The research-led knowledge production process
  • The teaching and learning process (in classrooms, labs, etc.).

The process of publicly bidding to develop Applied Sciences NYC (see my summary of the bid process here), then getting deeply involved in campus and building design process, the actual development process, and academic planning for the complex, effectively sutures Cornell’s identity, and its future, to the global city of New York.

Given this stance to the development process, a large number of Cornell and Technion faculty and administrators will be present in NYC, which will lead them to form deep social relations with key actors in the city. Some of these social relations will be sought out, though many will be accidental, subject to the unruly laws of serendipity in the metropolis. Physical co-presence matters to the socio-economic development process in cities, and the lead university (Cornell) behind Applied Sciences NYC seems to recognize this, as did Technion and Mayor Bloomberg.

In the Yale-NUS College case, Yale’s mission and objectives have led them to gift their brand (‘Yale’) for a fee, while providing input to a NUS-controlled:

  • Campus planning and design process
  • Physical development process
  • Teaching and learning process (in classrooms, labs, etc.).

Of course the newly hired faculty will have business cards that say ‘Yale-NUS College’ on them, and promotional materials flag the Yale name everywhere (a point made in this insightful article by Karin Fischer), but this is really a Singaporean project. Two proxy measures of this are that (a) that the newly hired faculty will receive Singaporean contracts, and (b) graduates only receive a degree from the National University of Singapore (not even a dual degree, a now common option in global higher ed). Of course a few administrators will be seconded from Yale, but they will inevitably retain their tenured jobs back in New Haven, CT.

Yale is thus the equivalent of Wharton when it helped provide much of the intellectual and organizational guidance to develop Singapore Management University (est. 2000), except for the fact that Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania did not sell the Wharton/Penn brand, nor did they play up their role in the SMU development process.

There are pros and cons to each model, of course, but I can’t help but wonder what the direct and indirect implications will be of Cornell’s higher level of material and non-material commitment to their new global city venture versus that being undertaken by Yale (at least in a spectral sense) in its newly adopted global city. Being present while being absent provides some latitude of freedom to reduce risk, and cost, but as INSEAD’s presence in Singapore demonstrates, and as Cornell and Technion’s presence in New York indicates, there are a myriad of rewards to being present – to be seen to be contributing, to be seen to be sharing the costs, to being on the ground, and to be demonstrating a medium- to long-term level of confidence in risky experiments in global higher education/global city development.

Kris Olds

13 thoughts on “Heavy Lifting vs Spectral Presence in Global Higher Ed

  1. This article is fascinating, and brings into focus the priorities of institutions. I also find the concept of school “branding” very interesting as I try and weigh the pros and cons of expanding the traditional brand of an institution into the global marketplace.

  2. Is their brand really worth it? Especially since they don’t get the dual degree.
    Yale has it’s strengths, but there are better teachers at Columbia (Teachers College)

  3. This article was very interesting in its comparison of the committment of Yale and Cornell to their global opportunities expansions. It seems Yale is playing it safe with their “branding” approach, while Cornell is entering their committment full on and head first. I wonder what Yale thinks of Cornell’s commitment and if it will make them rethink their relationship with Sinagpore.

  4. I found this post to be intriguing because it brought about a new topic of discussion and something I have not yet analyzed in my higher education studies, this being the branching approach. The comparisons between Yale and Cornell are quite different and I feel Cornell has made the better advancements.

  5. This article leaves one wondering how many more colleges will follow in these footsteps.

  6. The following statement is not 100% accurate: “a few administrators will be seconded from Yale, but they will inevitably retain their tenured jobs back in New Haven, CT.” The new Yale-NUS president is retiring from Yale–and thereby giving up his tenure at Yale–in order to join YNC. It may also be worth noting that, even though the contract is with NUS, faculty recruitment was done primarily by Yale faculty. So while the contrast between Cornell and Yale is valid, Yale’s role in YNC goes well beyond offering “intellectual and organizational guidance”. I do however agree that Yale’s involvement is more individual–based on specific faculty members–than institutional.

  7. This article does make you wonder how US higher education institutions will continue to “adopt” and move into an even greater presence in foreign cities. Both approaches are interesting, but only time will tell whether they are going to be successful or not. Beyond simple success, I would also be interested to know the final ROI on these two approaches.

  8. I found this article very interesting and I am excited by the globalization of higher education. Technology is making the world small and borderless, and online interaction between universities and international students has been ongoing for some time. However, I was less aware of the actual physical conjoining of international universities with our own. I think it bodes well for the future growth of higher education.

  9. It appears that “branding” of an institution and the products from that institution is the next step for higher education.

  10. Partnerships between institutions in both infrastructure and degree offerings require negotiation and an understanding of cultural considerations and politics. The source of funding may control the chosen model, but meeting the educational needs of a global citizen should be an overriding goal.

  11. The hands-on approach to building and planning the NYC tech campus are a plus for Cornell. Both schools offer the chance for a one a kind education at a modern facility. We just have to speculate as to whether both brands will continually be worth the price. Great article.

  12. I enjoyed this post. The old saying of work smarter and not harder came to mind when reading this. Global Higher Education as a whole is not the same. It means being present such that one is entangled in the regulatory, socio-cultural, physical, political, and institutional landscape of the city. Institutions must embrace their role as change makers in communities. Campuses must be connected as active and engaged members to promote and proclaim for the best interest of all of out students.

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