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Cheryl Misak is vice-president of the University of Toronto, which is involved in an international project to build an urban sciences campus in Brooklyn. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Cheryl Misak is vice-president of the University of Toronto, which is involved in an international project to build an urban sciences campus in Brooklyn. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

UNIVERSITY ISSUES

U of T contributes to New York's push for academic excellence Add to ...

The University of Toronto has joined a team of international schools to make a bid to build a $450-million urban sciences campus in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The deal includes a promise of city-owned land and $100-million in seed capital. It is part of an ambitious plan by New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg to develop a world-class engineering and research commercialization facility.

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The deadline for bidding is Friday, with Stanford and Cornell universities in the United States considered front-runners.

U of T’s engineering faculty has teamed up with New York University, the City University of New York, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University, Bombay’s Indian Institute of Technology and the University of Warwick in Britain. U of T vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak said the proposal calls for 50 permanent and rotating faculty, new housing on the site, and corporate partnership agreements with IBM, Cisco and Siemens. The Brooklyn site the group is proposing for the school was once used by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “It’s a hugely exciting proposal.”

New York officials will release a short list of finalists later this fall and announce a winner by the end of the year. Mr. Bloomberg, with his trademark alacrity, wants shovels in the ground by 2013, when he leaves office. “The sense of urgency comes directly form the mayor,” said Seth Pinsky, president of New York’s economic development agency. “We have a limited window of opportunity.”

The radical economic development scheme, considered by many to be the mayor’s legacy project, is expected to generate $6-billion in spin-off investment and create 30,000 creative-class jobs in coming decades.

Mr. Pinsky describes the strategy as “an Erie Canal moment,” a reference to a controversial 1820s decision by a state governor to build an upstate shipping channel. The investment that drove vast wealth into the port of New York.

Rather than offering the usual economic development tools such as tax breaks or land deals to entice office or condo developers, or shopping malls, Mr. Bloomberg wants to create what will essentially be a Silicon Valley East.

“It may be the single most transformative investment of the Bloomberg administration,” said Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Initiative at the University of Toronto. “I only wish more cities would think that way.”

With large Canadian universities stuffed to capacity and some provinces considering new campuses, New York’s experiment is a game-changing wealth-generating strategy and ups the ante for big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, said Dr. Florida. “If you see a place like New York moving in this direction, you’ve just seen your biggest competitor take a big step ahead.”

After the 2008 credit collapse, New York’s practical goal, Mr. Pinsky explained, was to diversify its economy by building a buffer against shocks to Wall Street’s jobs and payroll that affect the city’s fortunes.

Mr. Bloomberg’s use of an open tendering process that allows international bids has generated global attention. The project is also unusual because it is driven by a municipality rather than a higher level of government or a private institution. City officials assessed New York’s academic offerings and identified the need for a top-notch engineering school. The competition, launched last March, attracted interest from 27 leading U.S. and international institutions.

Can Canada’s largest cities can take a page from Mr. Bloomberg’s book?

It’s a timely question, given that Ontario’s Liberal government has pledged to build three new undergraduate campuses, including one in Greater Toronto. New York’s gamble has attracted little buzz in the halls of Canadian academe. But University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope, who heads the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said Mr. Bloomberg’s plan holds intriguing lessons.

In comparison with the “insular” process by which new Canadian universities are sited, Dr. Toope lauded the transparency of New York’s tendering approach, as well as the goal of attracting international institutions – an almost heretical concept in Canada’s publicly funded postsecondary sector. “That’s a good thing. I see something quite positive about being open.”

“It’s an interesting experiment,” said Glen Jones, the Ontario research chair for postsecondary education policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. But he added that New York is in a class by itself, not least because it has the resources and the gravitas to attract serious bidders.

Dr. Toope noted that North American cities historically have used land to attract colleges, universities and even academic joint ventures, such as the Great Northern Way campus, a partnership of four B.C. postsecondary institutions proposed for the False Creek flats in Vancouver.

More recently, Qatar and Singapore have used generous incentives to entice brand-name U.S. universities to establish campuses.

In New York, the city has offered up three locations – Governor’s Island, Roosevelt Island and an abandoned site on the Brooklyn waterfront – but bidders can propose other sites. Compared with what Middle Eastern and Asian governments are offering, the $100-million incentive is relatively modest, even by Canadian standards. The City of Toronto will spend at least that much re-paving local roads over the next four years. Toronto’s fallow industrial Portlands could become home to a similar project, Dr. Florida said.

He also points out that Mr. Bloomberg’s plan has enormous leverage because it will attract highly skilled students, faculty and entrepreneurs looking to commercialize the high-tech research. “That’s something Canadian cities need to be aware of.”



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