David J. Skorton of Cornell, at lectern, with Peretz Lavie of Technion
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at the news conference for the deal. He called it “a tantalizing, groundbreaking partnership.” Over three days, more than a dozen top officials from Cornell University
and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology barely ventured out of that 14-story clubhouse near Grand Central Terminal.
The object of discussion was the tantalizing $400 million in real estate and infrastructure upgrades that the Bloomberg administration was dangling for someone to build a new graduate school of applied sciences. A reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education, having learned that Peretz Lavie, Technion’s president, was in the country, could not pry loose his location or purpose. The veil of secrecy held.
It was not until summer’s end that David J. Skorton, Cornell’s president, told Robert K. Steel, the deputy mayor for economic development who was overseeing the contest for the science campus, that an alliance had been hammered out. “I wasn’t aware that they were dating,” Mr. Steel recalled, “and he called me up and said, ‘Good news, we’re getting married.’ ”
And the two universities waited until Oct. 18 — 10 days before the city’s deadline for proposals — to announce the union publicly. Last Monday, when their joint bid was crowned the winner of the city’s year-long, international competition, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made it clear that the synergy between the two institutions was a critical factor.
The unsuspected marriage, according to interviews with university and city officials, was one of many juicy pieces of the proposal that its architects unveiled strategically, to keep competitors in the dark and make the maximum impression on city officials.
The delivery of tens of thousands of alumni signatures supporting Cornell’s bid, the release of ambitious energy efficiency plans for a campus on Roosevelt Island, a stunning $350 million gift to underwrite construction, a $150 million venture fund for start-up businesses — each was leaked on a carefully constructed timetable.
“They kept putting on more and more attractive aspects to what was already quite a good proposal,” Mr. Steel said.
But the most advantageous surprise was the partnership that Cornell, thought by many to be the likely bridesmaid to front-running Stanford University, forged with Technion, a winner of Nobel prizes and incubator of high-tech businesses that was one of the few overseas institutions the city explicitly invited to participate.
Separated by 6,000 miles, the two universities do not appear to have much in common. Technion is a public university whose programs focus on science, engineering, medicine and architecture, where Israelis pay tuition of less than $6,000 a year. Cornell, originally a land-grant university whose upstate campus is well known for programs in hotel management, labor relations and forestry, is part of the storied Ivy League, with the full range of liberal-arts majors, a $5 billion endowment and an undergraduate sticker price topping $52,000.
But they quickly found that they had similar visions for the new graduate school — and complementary assets.
Cornell’s engineering and computer science programs rank among the nation’s top 10, it has deep financial resources, and it knows New York City, home to its medical school and an array of other programs. Technion has the main asset Cornell lacked, especially when compared with Stanford: It is the engine of one of the world’s great high-tech business zones, with alumni running hundreds of companies near its Haifa campus.
“What we bring to the table is our experience in educating generations of engineers who are also entrepreneurs and have changed the Israeli economy,” Dr. Lavie said.
Even before the mayor announced the competition in December 2010, the two universities were planting seeds of collaboration. That summer, Dr. Skorton had visited Technion during a tour of the Middle East. In their first meeting, Dr. Lavie, an effusive sabra who is an expert on sleep disorders, and Dr. Skorton, a buttoned-down Californian who is an accomplished jazz musician, “hit it off really well and became friends,” Dr. Skorton said.
“Since both of us come from a medical background,” Dr. Lavie added, “we had a common language.”