A view of the southern end of Roosevelt Island, where the Cornell NYC Tech will be located. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews.)
New York City’s Roosevelt Island, a narrow strip of land that sits in the East River, is home to around 12,000 residents living in a quiet neighborhood in the middle of a large metropolis. The Island is soon to be transformed: by 2037, Cornell University will establish a 2 million square foot graduate school on the island. Last November, representatives from Cornell attended a community board meeting there to discuss the university’s plans for a new campus. Left largely unmentioned was Cornell’s partner in the venture, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and Technion’s troubling role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In December 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city was seeking proposals from any “university, applied science organization or related institution” to construct a “state-of-the-art applied sciences research school” in New York City. In an effort to create technology jobs and establish itself as the East Coast’s Silicon Valley, the city later announced it would provide the winner public land at virtually no cost and up to $100 million of taxpayer money to build the campus. Fifteen universities, including Cornell, Stanford and Columbia, submitted proposals.
Because of its strong engineering and science programs, and its role in spurring innovation in the high-tech industry, Stanford University emerged as an early frontrunner. To compete with Stanford, Cornell sought a partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a world-renowned university in Haifa and an incubator for the high-tech industry, particularly focused on military technology.
The two were “planting seeds of collaboration” well before Bloomberg announced the bid, according to The New York Times. While touring the Middle East in summer of 2010, Cornell president David Skorton visited Technion and befriended its president, Peretz Lavie, and in February 2011, Cornell provost W. Kent Fuchs and Technion senior executive vice president Paul D. Feigin “started a series of conversations about working together,” reported The New York Times. To avoid revealing such plans during Bloomberg’s bidding process, the schools turned in separate “expressions of interest” in March 2011.
Shortly afterward, the schools began months of secretive discussions to cement their collaboration. Both schools were interested in building on Roosevelt Island, establishing interdisciplinary hubs rather than typical departments and creating a Master’s program in applied sciences. By July, the schools reached a deal: “Cornell would pay for construction and have ultimate control of the site, but they would collaborate in designing curriculum, selecting students and supplying faculty,” the Times reported.
On October 18, ten days before the deadline for proposals, Cornell publicly announced its partnership with Technion. When it came time to present their proposals and negotiate with the city, in December 2011, Cornell surprised city officials when it announced that it had secured a $350 million “gift” to finance construction from a wealthy donor, later revealed to be Charles Feeney, an 80-year-old philanthropist and Cornell alumnus. This generous donation gave Cornell and Technion a crucial advantage, since other schools discussed fundraising challenges during their presentations. It also offered $150 million from its endowment as venture capital for start-up companies—something no other university offered.