On Roosevelt Island, the thin strip of land that lies in New York’s East River between Manhattan and Queens, a new technology campus is rising (there is even a live feed of the construction work online).
This is Cornell Tech, which according to Soumitra Dutta, dean of Cornell University’s College of Business and a major authority on innovation and technology, will shake up how academics work.
“Engineering and business are being completely integrated…in a way it hasn’t happened in any other school that I know of,” he told Times Higher Education.
Individual academics’ offices and cubicles will be done away with, he says, meaning that a finance academic, operations researcher and computer scientist all sit next to each other in what he calls a “deep intermingling”.
Mixing up disciplines like this has become de rigueur in big new research centres: London’s Crick Institute is hoping to do the same for biomedicine, with different scientists bumping into each other in a kind of “gentle anarchy”.
This “boundary crossing” – between different subjects on campus, and between faculty and outside organisations – is the key change that universities need to encourage if they are to propel more of their innovations and ideas out into wider society and the economy, argues Dutta, who is a co-author of the Global Innovation Index, a ranking of countries based on their dynamism.
“What we see increasingly is that the more we get students from across disciplines to work together, the more innovative ideas they come up with,” he says.
But on existing campuses – Cornell’s main Ithaca campus in upstate New York, for example – it simply is not possible to mesh different subjects together as at Cornell Tech, because of the legacy of separated disciplines in different buildings.
“There’s no way we can bring them all together in the same way,” acknowledges Dutta. Universities get “comfortable” with the status quo, such as individual offices, he says, and there is simply “no burning platform for change”.
Cornell Tech emerged out of a sense that New York’s economy was “in crisis” after the financial crisis, he explains. Michael Bloomberg, who was New York’s mayor then, realised that the city had missed out on the technology growth enjoyed by other US cities, and so set up a competition for universities to create a tech hub in New York. Cornell won, and the new campus is set to open this summer.
But with geographical economic inequality high on the agenda after the election of Donald Trump, some might wonder why Cornell chose to put its new campus in New York – hardly an impoverished place in need of attention – rather than somewhere that would directly benefit economically such as left-behind small town America (Cornell’s campus in Ithaca is actually much closer to Trump-voting Pennsylvania than it is to its new outpost in New York City).
Dutta explains that universities, even if they do want to spread the fruits of research across different places, are nonetheless inevitably drawn to big, successful cities. “The reality is that if you look at the past 20 years, the concentration of [economic] activity in major cities is tremendous. All the trends are that economic activity has been concentrated in cities,” he says. Business schools “have to be there”, he asserts.
This means that there is a “risk” that university development in major cities such as New York leaves economically struggling places further behind, he acknowledges.
“Today, if you look at it, almost all universities…are in or within an hour’s reach of a major city. It’s very hard to find one that is in the middle of nowhere. Even Cornell – half is in New York City,” even though the institution started off in relatively isolated upstate New York.
What universities can do to benefit those who feel left behind, Dutta thinks, is simply try to teach many more students. But this requires a fundamental change in their modus operandi, he says.
“The current business model of faculty standing up and lecturing to a smaller class doesn’t scale up,” he argues. “So if you really want to be able to touch hundreds of thousands of kids in the country, you have to move to different business models.”
But at most of the top universities, “there is relatively limited pressure to change, because demand [from students] is high”; meanwhile, faculty are driven more by research than teaching. This stops elite institutions dramatically upping their intakes to help improve the life chances of young people. “The core focus is not on educating 100,000 kids,” he says.
Academics at Davos
After his interview with Times Higher Education, Soumitra Dutta was set to travel to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. He is a Davos veteran: this will be the 16th time that he has attended the gathering, now routinely derided as a networking event for global elites aloof from the problems of ordinary people.
What role do academic delegates play at this confluence of the rich and powerful?
They do sometimes speak truth to power, he says, about the way that the economy works. “There have been sessions where academics, especially with the financial crisis, have made suggestions, sometimes strong criticisms,” he insists.
One such academic Davos gadfly is Nouriel Roubini, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who is credited with having foreseen the 2008 financial crisis.
But many other academics at the summit focus on the “technical aspects” of their work, Dutta says.
“Academics typically tend to make statements based on research. There’s a tendency not to shoot from the hip,” Dutta explains, leaving the more controversial statements about the global economy to politicians and journalists.