Imagine if the University of Wisconsin had a campus in New York City dedicated to competing with MIT and Stanford for being the premiere science and high tech research campus in the nation.
That possibility was on the table recently when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a competition to create a new world-class science campus on underutilized acreage on Roosevelt Island in the East River. The land for the new campus would be given free to the university that competed successfully for it. Bloomberg was offering a $400 million grant in land and infrastructure.
There were eighteen schools that competed, but I can't find anyone on campus who knows if the UW was in that mix, and the people I talked with would have known if we had been.
This week, Bloomberg announced that Cornell had won the prize, beating out Stanford (which dropped out at the last minute) and other prestigious schools.
It's hard to say if the UW could have won over Cornell or Stanford, but there would have been a lot to make up a strong application. The UW leads the nation, usually beating out Stanford and always beating Cornell, in private fundraising. The UW has philanthropic support to match anyone, most notably from John and Tashia Morgridge.
Maybe most importantly, the UW has essentially already done in spectacular fashion with the new Institutes for Discovery just the kind of thing New York seemed to be looking for in its new high-tech urban campus. And, finally, the UW has strong New York ties with so many New York kids coming here to go to school and then returning home.
But you might ask why we should have wanted to compete and why, if we could raise the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars necessary to build a New York campus, we shouldn't invest that right here at home.
The answer is that successful modern economies are those that have strong ties to major metropolitan areas. It's one of the reasons I was such a strong supporter of passenger rail linking us to Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.
And this wouldn't have been about cutting any programs at the Institutes or anywhere else on this campus. Instead, it would have been about cementing ties to America's most dynamic city. It would have given the UW a direct pipeline to even more philanthropic support, and it would have given Madison and Wisconsin a strong foothold in the heart of the new economy. It would have meant more direct flights to New York, which may sound frivolous, but putting us on the map for the people who represent the tremendous amounts of capital in New York could have yielded enormous benefits for our city and state.
What this would have meant not just for the UW but for Madison and the entire state is hard to overestimate. Like it or not, Madison lies in the heart of flyover country and this would have given those planes carrying ideas and capital a reason to touch down, both physically and metaphorically, right here.