Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion column by Simon St. Laurent republished in response to our piece, “Thoughts for Ithaca from a trip to Buffalo.”
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Imagining Cornell in 2050
Ezra Cornell’s legacy would be permanent, the one partially public piece of the Ivy League. Centrally isolated, but important enough to prosper through connections less direct than highways.
“Too many hippies” ran a headline about Ithaca, but in the end the problem was more that there was one too many billionaires, in a place with vastly more connections.
When Cornell first created its tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City’s East River, it seemed like a relatively small thing, an extension of the main university like its medical school (already in NYC) or its venture in Qatar. Connections flowed between Ithaca and New York, as bus and eventually airplane shuttles moved a perpetual flow of professors, administrators, and students between them.
The Tech Campus, though, had a major advantage in fundraising. Titans of industry like their names on the building to be highly visible, and though Roosevelt Island was isolated in New York City, it was far more visible than anything in Ithaca.
As the campus slowly grew to include the entire island, it also grew more connections to the surrounding city. The tech and business focus eased links to surrounding industry, and the new campus connected more tightly with New York business than any of its predecessors had done. Judges still came from Columbia and NYU, but business, engineering, and even media came more and more from Cornell Tech. The connection with the Technion, though a longer reach, also brought new opportunities the original campus lacked.
Companies and individuals both donated heavily to the new campus, but the key gift came in 2039. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg shocked New York by leaving 80% of his legacy to Cornell Tech. The City renamed Roosevelt Island to Bloomberg Island in recognition of his public service and his gift, and Cornell began to reshape itself and the island campus.
Until 2039, the two campuses had co-existed. Money flowed from New York City to Ithaca overall, provoking a burst of architectural exploration at the Ithaca campus. While Cornell Tech had grown rapidly, overall Ithaca enrollment, especially undergraduate enrollment, had remained steady or grown slowly. The Bloomberg bequest changed all of those conversations, because the vast sum could only be spent within New York City. Even administrators and professors had to live in the five boroughs.
The Johnson School of Management had been one of the earlier schools to split across the campuses, shifting most of its program to New York over three decades. The School of Industrial and Labor Relations followed a similar pattern, roughly five years behind, and by 2045, three-quarters of its students were in New York. While the Statler Hotel remained open in Ithaca, the School of Hotel Administration’s New Statler Hotel on Bloomberg Island prospered.
Some schools – Agriculture and Life Sciences, along with Veterinary Medicine – had at least some projects that required large tracts of land and access to farm animals. Most, though, saw brighter prospects along the East River than Cayuga Lake. Art, Architecture, and Planning announced in 2041 that they would move their programs for undergraduate majors to New York City, and Engineering joined the move a few weeks later. Arts & Sciences, after years of sometimes ferocious debate, announced that they would follow in 2045, and the University President’s office moved in 2046.
Cornell remains on East Hill, but with a cast dominated by freshman and sophomores, with some graduate students. The University still describes the first two years in Ithaca as a critical learning and bonding experience, but most students now spend their last two years on Bloomberg Island. Graduate students are split across the two campuses, but the trend seems clearly away from Ithaca.
The hippies continue to celebrate Ithaca, but it is rapidly becoming theirs and theirs alone. Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College have grown, but as the weight of Cornell shifted downstate, the city and county suffered a sharp decline in tax revenue. Falling housing prices were praised as finally achieving goals set at the beginning of the century, but the underlying collapse in property values was all too obvious.
Can wind farms, tourism, and food keep Tompkins County from the fate of the many Upstate towns that lost their reasons to be?
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