My latest City Journal article from the Winter issue is now online. It’s called “The Tech Campus Moves Downtown” and is about states and universities making geographic moves to better position themselves for the 21st century. It talks a lot about the University of Illinois and its Discovery Partners Institute plan, as well as Cornell Tech. Some excerpts:
Much of today’s technology economy is located where a critical mass of talent and capital converge: on the campuses of elite research universities, in settings with strong entrepreneurial cultures. The key role that universities play in this equation is prompting some states to rethink the geography of their key academic institutions, looking to position them more effectively as engines of the local economy.
A case study for the challenges that states face in strengthening their knowledge-economy prowess can be found in Illinois. The University of Illinois’ renowned computer science and engineering programs have produced a Who’s Who of tech startup founders, including Steve Chen and Jawed Karim (YouTube), Jeremy Stoppelman (Yelp), Tom Siebel (Siebel Systems), Jerry Sanders (AMD), and Max Levchin (PayPal). It’s a track record to be proud of. From the state’s perspective, though, there’s one big problem: none of these accomplished people built his business in Illinois.
Why do Illinois’ tech brains often escape to the West Coast? A commonly given answer: geography. The University of Illinois’ flagship campus is located in downstate Urbana-Champaign, a small region of only 240,000 people about two hours’ drive on I-57 from the state’s economic capital in Chicago. This disconnect between the location of a state’s flagship school and its economic capital is not unique to Illinois: other states should be rethinking their geographic strategy for the twenty-first century as well.
The location of most American universities is an accident of history…Most of their sites were chosen more than 100 years ago, for reasons no longer relevant…As states’ populations swelled and their economies expanded, cities with colleges began to diverge. Some states had established their flagship public institutions in the state capital or in another city that grew to be the state’s economic center. These included Ohio State in Columbus, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Texas in Austin. But others—like Purdue, Penn State, and Missouri—were located in cities that grew with the college but remained small urban areas, “college towns” to this day.
Cornell, a private Ivy League university that is also New York’s land-grant college, has made just such a geographic realignment. As a private school, it’s free from the political complications besetting state universities, and thus is able to make moves more rapidly than these public institutions. Cornell’s main campus is located in the upstate college town of Ithaca. Its medical school has long been based in New York City, and it recently opened a second major New York City operation: Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, a partnership with Technion–Israel Institute of Technology.
New York City’s motivation to get a technology-focused university is clear. Less attention has been paid to Cornell’s motivation. According to Dan Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, one motivator was that the city was a complementary venue to Ithaca for realizing the university’s research ambitions. “We are focused on the digital transformation of the economy and society,” he says. “So many issues of the world are urban issues.” The critical mass of industry and the density of people make New York City a good place for those looking to be on the leading edge of digital transformation. It didn’t hurt that Cornell could tap into huge pools of donor money to win the competition and launch the campus. The school has raised $770 million in private funding so far.
Cornell may be the best-known case of a top college making a big geographic move, but it’s happening elsewhere, too, as the case of Michigan State’s medical school demonstrates. University medical schools have long been located in a state’s big city, geographically separate from the university’s main campus. These schools require a critical mass of patients to operate at a scale more easily attained in a large metro.
That’s part of the rationale for Michigan State College of Human Medicine (MSU-CHM) relocating its medical school headquarters to Grand Rapids and building a major medical school campus there.
Illinois is arguably the state with the most to gain from some type of geographic realignment. It’s been a topic of conversation and debate for years. Former governor Bruce Rauner put forth the most aggressive solution to date, one that draws heavily on the Cornell Tech approach. The Discovery Partners Institute (DPI), to be located in Chicago’s South Loop, is envisioned not as a degree-granting institution but rather, in partnership with other universities and corporations, as a center for cutting-edge research in areas like big data and food and agriculture. DPI anticipates rotating faculty and students from the University of Illinois and other schools, as well as hiring its own faculty. The state has already appropriated $500 million for the project and is exploring partnerships with Israeli universities.
Leaders in Urbana-Champaign are alarmed at the prospect that university assets might move to the Loop. Laura Frerichs, director of the University of Illinois’ Research Park and economic-development director for its Urbana-Champaign campus, emerged as a major DPI opponent. She believes that there’s no inherent limitation in her community’s ability to retain talent and build a technology economy. She points to local examples of technology success, such as Wolfram Research, the global software company behind the well-known Mathematica platform, which is headquartered locally and employs 350 people. The research park that Frerichs runs has attracted numerous major firms, including ABInBev (formerly Anheuser-Busch), Caterpillar, and AbbVie.
The biggest political risk to DPI is the state’s transition to a new gubernatorial administration. Rauner lost his reelection bid to Democrat J. B. Pritzker, who criticized the DPI plan. Yet Pritzker has championed Chicago’s technology sector. He has invested in Chicago technology firms and was the driving force behind the creation of a facility known as 1871 (named after the year of the Great Chicago Fire) as a sort of headquarters institution of Chicago tech. He clearly understands the logic of DPI. As governor, he’ll likely want to put his own stamp on it and perhaps rebrand it, not cancel it. Then again, relying on rational behavior in Illinois politics has never been a winning bet.
Click over to read the whole thing.
It’s not just STEM focused moves either. The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business has been making a push into Arlington.
A related point occurred to me last week when I gave a talk to some MBA students at Chicago-Booth. I was told that most MBA students there actually live downtown now and take the train to Hyde Park every day. In fact, every person who attended my talk lived downtown (I did a survey). It makes me wonder if the school made a mistake when it built its new business school building, the Harper Center, in Hyde Park instead of downtown. MBA students already don’t engage much with the rest of the school, so this would have been a feasible move.
Chris Barnett says
So let’s look at the converse: did the long-standing (and continuing) near-downtown presence of the “original” computer science program, at Penn’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering on 33rd St., help Philadelphia to be a modern tech center?
It generated some early success, with UNIVAC being established in the suburbs, but that early edge has clearly dissipated.
Aaron M. Renn says
Penn’s CS school is ranked #19th – not bad but also not a the time. And for a long time tech was mostly suburban. Today it’s becoming more urban. I think we’ll see Penn become much more of an economic development platform for the city than it was in the past.
Chris Barnett says
I’d suggest it long has been, just not in the narrow field of “tech”.
For example, the chairman/CEO who built Comcast up from a regional cable operator is a Wharton grad in Philly.
The city that shall not be named has to be amongst the largest metros in America without a full research university. The University of shall not be named is clearly trying to become one, but still has a way to go. It has a medical school, well-known architecture and urban design schools, and some substantial areas of research, mostly in medicine and engineering. With the decline in public support for universities in Ohio, The University of shall not be named isn’t at as much of a disadvantage as it was with respect to OSU, either. Still, OSU does suck up a lot of people and money going into higher ed and research. Are there other regional state schools in medium or large metro areas that are succeeding at turning themselves into research institutions?
Chris Barnett says
IUPUI, partly because two of its key graduate research schools (Med and Public/Environmental Affairs) have major campuses in Indy, and the IU Health cancer center is here too.
I’d say those are promising starts, but not yet research institutions actually attracting significant new money and people. I think of how many ivy schools moved from elite finishing schools before WWII to become globally important research institutions over a few generations. I’m just wondering if there are any examples of regional public universities or public institutions successfully moving up the ‘chain’ of research in larger metros. Georgia Tech in Atlanta perhaps? I don’t think Kansas City has a research institution. How did Johns Hopkins become an important research institution in a troubled and relatively unimportant city like Baltimore? Washington University in St. Louis is a well funded research institution in a troubled and stagnant metro, but it’s private, too. St. Louis would be in much worse shape without it. Are there lessons that we can take from these examples of private universities that can apply to public institutions like the University of the city that shall not be named?
Chris Barnett says
Texas is a public university, and what it has in common with the others you’ve mentioned is wealth and presidents/trustees determined to raise the institution’s reputation. While the Ivies gained private endowments from wealthy graduate-benefactors, Texas has long had a seemingly unlimited state endowment from oil and gas royalties.
The top-tier state A&M schools are clearly major STEM research institutions (at least across the science, engineering, and ag fields). Ohio State, Georgia Tech, and Purdue come to mind; the first two are in relatively large metros, and Purdue is a special case since the school is within (long) commuting range of the NW Indianapolis suburbs.
Isn’t it still important that universities in some way counter the winner-take-all economy in the interest of regional economic development? States could turn all public campuses into one university with campuses around the state that would then have an incentive to establish their comparative advantage and to share the money around in a mutually beneficial way. A campus in Cincinnati could become the ‘biomedical hub’ for the state if it succeeds at getting large grants and deals with drug and medical equipment companies. The campus in Columbus would support that development when it realizes that it was becoming the “IT hub” for the state and would get new money and research people as a result. It become a win-win for both. Think of such a system as ‘networks’ of knowledge and training that create many points of contact for many individuals, businesses, and local governments. It’s a vision for higher education and research that would appeal to more people and build a broader basis of political support in the state. It seems this approach would benefit many states .
P Burgos says
If anything, all of the examples you listed make me think that research universities are over-rated in terms of kickstarting economic growth in a metro, especially older, stagnant metros that have suffered due to globalization and increasing concentration of high value economic activity in superstar cities. One thing I would note is that none of those universities are very strong in IT, so they don’t provide a platform for those cities to become good locations for cheap, back office software and IT centers in the same way that Austin, Columbus, and Raleigh have done.
St. Louis’ and Baltimore’s research universities are what kept them from becoming Detroit. It’s all relative. I take your point about research focus and economic development. The University of Shall Not Be Named has a particularly prestigious design, architecture, and planning program and the city that shall not be named has a relatively large collection of design and architecture companies for a city it’s size. For what it’s worth, increasingly IT is part of everything.
P Burgos says
Definitely agree that IT is a part of everything, but there is still a divide career wise between folks who build and maintain IT hardware and software, and those who use it to provide a service or to build/manufacture something.
that divide is growing smaller everyday.
P Burgos says
I am not certain about that; I don’t see accountants becoming anymore proficient in programming than they already are (constant exposure to Excel turns quite a few of them into amateur coders), and I don’t see other professionals like doctors, nurses, lawyers, architects, etc., becoming more proficient either. Their area of comparative advantage in knowledge and experience with a non-IT subject matter, and IT knowledge doesn’t, I think, make them greatly more productive or valuable as workers within their field.
Are there industries or careers you particularly had in mind? I would think that any career that uses a lot of real math (i.e. not accounting, where you don’t really need anything more than basic algebra, and I speak from experience on this) would definitely come to be dominated by a model in which IT knowledge is really valuable and part of the field, so maybe engineers, actuaries, certain kinds of management and business analysts, statisticians, etc. But I guess I don’t see it happening outside of math heavy jobs, with advanced manufacturing maybe being the one exception.
“Uses a lot of real math” is the definition of “It” used for the categorization of job types?
Derek Rutherford says
Per Matt’s question “Are there other regional state schools in medium or large metro areas that are succeeding at turning themselves into research institutions?”, University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) is one example. The DFW area area is comparatively weak in research universities but has a successful medium-sized tech scene (Texas Instruments, Sabre, EDS, Softlayer [now part of IBM], lots of IT services). I think the local booming economic environment is helping UTD climb the “league tables” and it is becoming the clear #2 research campus in the UT system (behind Austin, obviously), and it has particularly close ties to TI. That said, it is not (yet) an a-list tech program, but the gap is shrinking.
DFW is an example of a metro area with a good tech scene despite not having the big research university. I think the main reason is that it traditionally vacuums up grads of UT-Austin and Texas A&M to stay competitive – this may support the theory advanced above that the tech university impact can be overstated.
On a side note, despite its name, UTD is actually in suburban Richardson. Good for being close to tech companies, but ~15-20 miles from downtown.
Thanks, Derek. That’s exactly the kind of examples I was looking for. If you can’t lure a tech campus to your city, you can make one yourself! I see this as a promising path for regional state campuses that happen to find themselves in growing metros.
Rod Stevens says
Six years ago I did a strategy for UC Davis on how to leverage its world class expertise in food and nutrition to foster more partnerships between business and academia. I found that the university’s location two hours east of the Bay Area was a major hindrance in attracting business interest, for two key reasons. The first was that there was no business talent there with which to grow a company. The famed “50 mile rule” of venture capital wasn’t simply about having things close to home, but about moving acquired companies to the Bay Area, where there was a stock of management talent with which to grow companies. The second reason did have to do with the location of venture capitalists offices: the traffic in the Bay Area is so bad that on Fridays they don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of the Bay Bridge, and unable to get home to SF in a timely fashion.
Money is an important issue in these university moves. In Portland, various of the immigrant Arabs who went to Portland State founded and made their money there, and so part of their fortunes went to the urban university there, and not to the “state” schools two hours south. Cornell University relocated its graduate engineering programs to NYC partly because that was there could draw talent, but also because NYC was so willing to fund the move. Originally NYC government had chosen Stanford for that site, but when, at the last minute, NYC tried to put the bite on Stanford for various costs not originally cited in the letter of intent, Stanford backed out, citing bad faith negotiations on the part of NYC. By the end of that same week Cornell had signed up to replace Stanford, saying that because it was already operating a medical school in the city, it was already familiar with NYC’s negotiating style (which never stops.) Cornell knew that it could get some money out of the city, and, more importantly, that a quasi-Manhattan presence would put it close to donors, to say nothing of the city’s growing digital media community.
Here in Washington State, a woman in the ag department at Washington State, six hours east of Seattle, told me that she is unable to get well-known researchers to attend her conferences because it is so costly and time consuming to fly there. A researcher at UC Davis’ Mondavi Institute told me that researchers in Berkeley will now take half the space they would have otherwise required on campus if they can instead get into Mission Bay in SF, close to the other leading researchers. He also said that its not just cities and national centers that leading researchers are going to, but world centers like Paris, London and New York. Asking him about a research center in Kanapolis, NC founded and funded by the owner of Dole, the food company, he said that if you work in an out-of-the-way place like that today, you are, by nature, an also-ran in the research world, that no one with prospects or accomplishments would take a job in a back-water place like that. The researcher I was talking is not only well respected in academia; he was also offered the top science job at the world’s largest food company.
These matters of where you work are very important in academia. My contact said that its partly about drawing the next generation of talent as your research aids, that they know who they want to be mentored by and which labs are making a name for themselves, and that today the reputation of a major research department in a university can come and go in five years. The corporate world no longer revolves around Bell Labs, for now you no longer need the same level of funding and equipment to make the same break-through discoveries. Apparently the same is now happening in academia. Is it any wonder that the more tech and business based departments are moving from the ag to the urban centers?
P Burgos says
I don’t know where else to put this, but congrats on the article on Joel Kotkin’s site “New Geography”.
I don’t know a whole lot about the culture of the Pacific Northwest, as the only person I know from there is my father-in-law, and his family was Kansas (moved to Seattle for his father’s job with Boeing). He seems to be pretty modest in spite of having quite a successful and interesting career, so in case it is out of keeping with cultural norms up there I will post a link to it: