Cornell U. Is Winner of Competition for NYC Science Campus, as Stanford Pulls Out

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Cornell U. released this illustration of its proposed Roosevelt Island campus.
December 16, 2011

[Updated: 12/19, 8:08 a.m.]

A New York City official confirmed on Monday morning that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg would announce in the afternoon that Cornell University was the winner of a high-profile competition to build a new applied-engineering campus in the city. The news was the latest surprise in a weekend of unexpected developments in the contest, which had been expected to stretch into January.

The flurry of news started with a bombshell on Friday, when Stanford University dropped out of the competition. The decision opened the way for a plan by Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which have jointly proposed a modernistic, industry-focused research-and-teaching venture on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.

The announcement was unexpected because it had long been assumed that Stanford, with abundant experience working with Silicon Valley businesses, was the front-runner.

Stanford's announcement was succinct. "After several weeks of negotiations with New York City, university leaders and the Stanford Board of Trustees have determined that it would not be in the best interests of the university to continue to pursue the opportunity," it said in a statement.

Hours later, in an announcement that apparently sealed the deal for Cornell, the university’s president, David J. Skorton, said that it had received a $350-million gift from an anonymous donor to help it build the new campus. The gift is the largest to the university in its history.

A Million-Dollar Bid

Stanford's decision was an abrupt turnaround. The university had spent more than a million dollars preparing its bid and had undertaken a very visible political-style campaign to build public support for its bid.

Stanford had said it would raise $1.5-billion to develop the new campus and, like four other finalists, had begun negotiations with the administration of Mayor Bloomberg, which had offered free city land and $100-million in infrastructure improvements to attract bidders.

But in announcing its withdrawal from the competition, Stanford's president, John L. Hennessy, said the university had done so because it could not be sure it would be able to proceed in a way that would guarantee success for the campus.

"We were looking forward to an innovative partnership with the City of New York, and we are sorry that together we could not find a way to realize our mutual goals," said Mr. Hennessy in a written statement. He did not elaborate.

But a source familiar with the negotiations said Stanford had walked away because it believed city officials were trying to impose new conditions—and additional costs.

The Wall Street Journal cited an anonymous source who said Stanford had been deterred by the possible cost of cleaning up pollution on the Roosevelt Island site. But the New York City official told The Chronicle that that theory was "absolutely not true."

The New York Times cited other anonymous sources as saying that Stanford had been put off by the city's negotiating tactics, which included adding the requirement—after initial bids were in—that the candidates face financial penalties if they failed to meet "construction milestones" by certain deadlines, a pledge that Stanford regarded as hampering its flexibility.

'A Little Bit of Yahoo-ing'

Of the five bidders then still in contention—the city eliminated a proposal from Amity University, in India, and another from a consortium of New York research institutions—only Cornell and the Technion were vying for the 10-acre site on Roosevelt Island, seen as the most desirable of locations the city offered. The other remaining candidates included Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, and New York University.

"There's a little bit of yahoo-ing around here," Lance R. Collins, Cornell's dean of engineering and a key academic architect of the university's bid, said on Friday. But he said even with Stanford's withdrawal, the negotiations continue. "Until I hear the mayor say our name, I'm not counting our chickens," he said. (Mr. Bloomberg's office, apparently eager to rebut the theory that he was picking the winner prematurely, said that the billionaire mayor was not the source of the huge gift to Cornell.)

Mr. Collins said he didn't know why Stanford had withdrawn but noted that the city, which has been negotiating intensively with each of the contenders for the past two weeks, is pushing bidders to carry a big part of the financial load. "They're trying to get as large a program and as fast a program as they can," said Mr. Collins, who speculated that, for Stanford, "perhaps the negotiations were pushing them past their comfort zone."

Stanford had said it could start its program within a year, but it would do so in facilities of other institutions, most likely at the City College of the City University of New York.

Cornell, which already has a medical school in Manhattan, has contended that its proximity to New York City and deeper alumni base there gave it a competitive advantage, which could help it get its master's program started quickly.

Mayor Bloomberg, who famously keeps a calendar in his office counting down the days to the end of his term, has made the engineering campus a major priority for his administration. "They want it far enough along that it cannot be reversed by a future administration," said Mr. Collins. "There's no question that there will be shovels in the ground before he leaves office."

Paul Basken and Andrew Mytelka contributed to this article.