Stanford officials reflect on NYC proposal

Jan. 30, 2012, 3:03 a.m.

This is the first in a series of articles by The Daily News Staff exploring Stanford’s bid and subsequent withdrawal from the competition for an applied sciences and engineering campus in New York City. The next article will weigh the costs and gains of Stanford’s participation in the competition.


Stanford withdrew its bid for a New York applied sciences and engineering campus because the city repeatedly revised the terms of its offer and could not be trusted as a reliable partner, said Stanford administrators, responding to media reports that Stanford was not adequately prepared for the tough negotiation style of New York officials.


Stanford officials reflect on NYC proposal
Stanford withdrew its proposal for a New York campus on Dec. 16. (Courtesy of Redsquare, Inc.)

Stanford’s sudden withdrawal on Dec. 16 surprised many, as the University was considered a frontrunner in the competition. The University press release announced that Stanford had decided, “it would not be in the best interests of the University to continue to pursue the opportunity,” but did not provide any details or explanation.


Cornell, Stanford’s main competitor and the ultimate competition winner, announced a $350 million gift hours after Stanford’s withdrawal, prompting speculations that Stanford had pulled out after hearing about Cornell’s donation in advance, an allegation that Stanford administrators have denied.


Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that “the University, with no experience building in New York, recoiled at meeting terms laid down by the city after its proposal was submitted, while Cornell, with extensive experience in the city–its medical school is in Manhattan–expected such negotiations.” The New York Times quoted a city official as saying, “Stanford could not or would not keep up.”


Up until now, Stanford officials have not spoken publicly about specific details of the failed negotiations.


Last Thursday, President John Hennessy discussed his decision with the Faculty Senate. “The city made a set of requirements which from our perspective, would increase the risk and cost, and decrease some of the long term benefits,” he said. “While we believed we could win the proposal, it would require us to make concessions which would reduce future opportunities for the core campus…and compromise the university campus.”


Officials at both the New York Mayor’s office and the New York City Economic Development Corporation refused to comment on the negotiation process and whether they had played a “bait and switch” game with Stanford.


“All schools were competing on the same terms and all of the terms were outlined specifically in the RFP (Request for Proposal). It’s that simple,” said one city official, who asked to remain anonymous and declined to comment further.


“Nothing about the RFP was firm,” said University spokesperson Lisa Lapin. “The city was making changes to all of the terms of the project.”


For instance, Lapin said that the city required Stanford to proceed with the project even if the city revoked the $100 million it promised to the competition winner.


“There were issues about liability for…the environmental risks involved in the site,” Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 told The Daily. “They wanted us to indemnify them for anything they had done, anything that had happened. So for example, if somebody sued about exposure to chemicals 20 years ago, we would have been liable; and that’s an example.”


Hennessy added that the city also backtracked on the amount of land they had promised. Originally, Stanford believed they would be granted land from shore to shore on Roosevelt Island. But New York cut back the land offer, which meant that Stanford would have to pay to buy additional land if they wanted to build the campus for which they originally planned.


Finally, Hennessy said Stanford could not see eye to eye with the city on how quickly the campus could scale up.


“We would not compromise our faculty hiring standards,” Hennessy said. “Particularly when many faculty already believe they live in Nirvana…[that] increased some of the issues for us in terms of how to scale up.”


Hennessy and the faculty committee resisted the city’s push to ramp up quickly.


“This needs to be one university, two campuses, not an A campus and a B campus,” Hennessy said. “Clearly, a smaller campus but it can’t be different quality-wise. And that I think was a real point of differentiation between Stanford and what the city wanted.”


Besides the changing terms of the RFP, it seems that Stanford was turned off by the tone of the negotiations, which led the University to feel that it could not work successfully with the city.


“I think Stanford wanted very much to do this, if we had a willing partner in New York City,” said Jim Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering. “I think that it became clear as we went through the negotiations that it was more of a city talking to a land developer kind of discussion, rather than a partner talking to a partner.”


All together, these aspects made Stanford feel that success could not be guaranteed.


“If we could not succeed in achieving everything that NYC wanted, then we would have had a campus 3,000 miles away that would end up being an albatross around our neck,” Etchemendy said.


In New York, Roosevelt Islanders said they were shocked to hear that Stanford was withdrawing.


“Everybody was completely stunned beyond imagination; the news flew through the community like wildfire,” said Denise Shull, a common councilor on Roosevelt Island’s Residents Association Silicon Island Subcommittee.


Schull said she was disappointed that Stanford dropped their bid.


“From my perspective…the island was much more in support of Stanford. They just have a fabulous reputation. There’s just no two ways about it,” she said.


On the other hand, residents have also welcomed Cornell enthusiastically.


“In reflection, now that Cornell is going to be here, New York is going to be able to do its own thing, rather than be a satellite to Silicon Valley,” said Jonathan Kalkin, former director of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation.


At the end of the day, Stanford maintains that the bid was worthwhile, even though the proposal cost the University $3 million.


“The saying ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ is most apt,” read the University press release at the time of Stanford’s withdrawal.

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