Cornell’s $350 Million Donor Revealed as University Wins Contest

Cornell University received $350 million from the Atlantic Philanthropies and its Chairman Charles Feeney to support a New York City engineering campus awarded to the university yesterday.

The donation, a record for the university, was announced Dec. 16 as an anonymous gift. The identity of the donor was announced late last night in a statement on Atlantic’s website.

Cornell and its partner Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won a New York City contest to build an engineering campus with a grant of land on Roosevelt Island and $100 million for infrastructure improvements. The NYCTech Campus is intended to bolster job creation in the city and may generate 600 spinoff companies and $23 billion in economic activity over the next three decades, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference yesterday.

Cornell, based in Ithaca, New York, and Haifa-based Technion beat out six competing bids, including one from Stanford University. Cornell announced the $350 million gift hours after Stanford said it was withdrawing from the contest.

“Of all the applications we received, Cornell and Technion’s was the boldest and most ambitious,” Bloomberg said. “In a word, this project will be transformative.”

Feeney, 80, graduated from Cornell in 1956 and co-founded Duty Free Shoppers, a retailing company. That company became the core of the Atlantic Philanthropies, Feeney’s charity, which has made grants of more than $5.5 billion since 1984.

The city is continuing negotiations with Columbia University, New York University and Carnegie Mellon University about supporting an additional engineering project in the city, Bloomberg said.

Classes in 2012

Cornell plans to begin offering classes next year in leased space as it begins building on the campus at Roosevelt Island, in the East River. Cornell said it will move into the campus by 2017 and finish construction of 1.3 million square feet by 2027. By 2043, the campus will have 2,500 students and 280 professors, according to a statement from the mayor’s office.

The new campus will generate more than $23 billion in overall economic activity and $1.4 billion in tax revenue over the next 30 years, according to the statement. The project will create 20,000 construction jobs and 8,000 permanent jobs. The estimated 600 spinoff companies will create another 30,000 jobs.

“This is not a moment for a touchdown dance for Cornell or Technion,” Cornell President David Skorton said at the press conference. “This is a moment for a touchdown dance for New York City.”

Financing

The project will cost about $1.5 billion to build, Skorton said. The university doesn’t plan on borrowing to finance the project and instead will rely on tuition and philanthropy, technology license fees and corporate partnerships, he said.

The Cornell-Technion proposal offered the most students, most faculty, biggest facility and most aggressive time frame, the mayor said.

Cornell has a medical school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. About 20,000 graduate, undergraduate and postgraduate students attend the university, and there are about 50,000 Cornell alumni in New York City. The institution will continue to operate its engineering school in Ithaca.

“It is a tremendous boost in morale and recognition for Cornell,” said Inge Reichenbach, the vice president of development at Yale University who held the same role at Cornell for a decade. “It is an amazing opportunity.”

Einstein Legacy

Technion, an 87-year-old Israeli science and engineering institution with almost 13,000 students, counts Albert Einstein as an early supporter. The scientist was president of the first Technion society, according to its website. Technion professor Dan Schechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Dec. 10.

“We are not going to have an extension of the Technion or Cornell,” said Technion President Peretz Lavie. “We are going to have something new.”

An engineering campus in New York will help tie Cornell more closely to the city and provide a more viable location for companies that are spun out of the school, said Ronald Ehrenberg, an economics professor who directs the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.

“The trustees and the president have long wanted to have a bigger presence in New York City,” Ehrenberg said. “The notion that you can be a great international university in the 21st century if you’re located in rural upstate New York doesn’t work.”

Bold Thinking

Skorton deserves credit for bold thinking, Ehrenberg said.

“I’m absolutely delighted for him,” Ehrenberg said. “To have leaders with a grand vision is incredible.”

Upon seeking requests for proposals in July, the mayor hailed the development of a “world-class” applied sciences and engineering school in the city. He said it would be “a critical driver of the further diversification of New York City’s economy” beyond its dependence on Wall Street, which provided about 7 percent of the city’s tax revenue in 2011, according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

Cornell’s endowment was valued at $5.3 billion as of June 30, according to the university.

Cornell counts among its alumni Sanford “Sandy” Weill, former chairman of Citigroup Inc. in New York; Abby Joseph Cohen, senior investment strategist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in New York, and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

Practical Knowledge

Founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, Cornell is the youngest university in the eight-member Ivy League. Ezra Cornell was an entrepreneur who believed in generating knowledge that could be put to practical use, Reichenbach said.

“Everything was geared to make it applicable for the benefit of mankind,” she said. “This opportunity is completely in sync with Cornell’s mission.”

Winning the contest, and receiving a $350 million donation, will catalyze fundraising for the university, Reichenbach said.

“This will be a validation of the institution and will galvanize all the alumni,” she said.

The project must get approval from City Council, the local community board, the city Planning Board and the city Department of Planning before construction may begin, as required by state law, said Julie Wood, spokeswoman for the mayor.

The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.

To contact the reporters on this story: Oliver Staley in New York at ostaley@bloomberg.net; Henry Goldman in New York at hgoldman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at jkaufman17@bloomberg.net

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