Being a Billionaire Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Stanford University announced this week that its spring commencement speaker would be Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York.

If you saw that one coming, we’d like to know whom you’ve picked to win this year’s World Series.

Just two years ago, Stanford was a front-runner in a ballyhooed competition among several universities to build a new applied-sciences campus at the south end of New York City’s Roosevelt Island. Then, in December 2011, Stanford abruptly withdrew its bid, and Mr. Bloomberg announced three days later that the city had selected a partnership between Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to build the new campus. Anonymous loyalists for New York City and Stanford each blamed the other side for the breakdown in negotiations.

Eventually Stanford’s president, John L. Hennessy, went public with his complaints in an interview with The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta. Mr. Hennessy “was seething,” Mr. Auletta wrote.

In January, he told me that the city had changed the terms of the proposed deal. After seven universities had submitted their bids, he said, the city suddenly wanted Stanford to agree that the campus would be operational, with a full complement of faculty, sooner than Stanford thought was feasible. The city, according to Debra Zumwalt, Stanford’s general counsel and lead negotiator, added “many millions of dollars in penalties that were not in the original proposal, including penalizing Stanford for failure to obtain approvals on a certain schedule, even if the delays were the fault of the city and not Stanford. … I have been a lawyer for over thirty years, and I have never seen negotiations that were handled so poorly by a reputable party.” One demand that particularly infuriated Stanford was a fine of twenty million dollars if the City Council, not Stanford, delayed approval of the project.

This coming June, Mr. Bloomberg, who was worth an estimated $25-billion in 2012, will address Stanford’s Class of 2013, a prospect that has at least one Stanford senior cheering. Writing on TUSB, The Unofficial Stanford Blog, George Malkin says that Stanford may have missed its chance to build a New York City campus, but with Mr. Bloomberg as commencement speaker, “we may have just gotten the next best thing.”

Return to Top