© Ferguson

When Daniel Huttenlocher returned to teach at Cornell in 2002 after a spell working at a California start-up, he insisted on holding a joint appointment between his former department – computer science – and the Johnson school of business.

“After working in a start-up, it felt very narrow to go back to just the computer science department,” he says.

So it is not surprising that Prof Huttenlocher has been chosen as the dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, the multi-billion-dollar high-tech university to be built on Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Queens, where business and technology professors will meet the digital age industry of New York.

The project, the brainchild of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, will be instrumental in the renaissance of New York City following the financial crisis, says Soumitra Dutta, dean of the Johnson school. “Today it’s seen as the flagship project in New York. It’s the regeneration not of a region, but of a whole city’s economy.”

Prof Dutta may be a business academic, but like Prof Huttenlocher, he has a foot in several camps – his PhD is in computer science and he is an authority on the impact of new technology on the business world. The idea that the Johnson school should teach business on all the New York technology degrees comes naturally to him.

But his real interest is the one-year MBA. “The real benefit for us is that it gives us a chance to rethink from scratch an MBA for the future. That’s the most exciting part of what we’re doing.”

Rethinking degrees from scratch is a message that resonates with Prof Huttenlocher. “Most engineering schools started in the mid 1800s with the industrial revolution…..We are now well into the information age. We are here to create the information analogue of the engineering age.”

Business and social sciences will all be part of the package, he says. “On one side it is much broader than a traditional engineering school, but we’re also narrower than an engineering school because we’re focusing on the digital age. We’re really looking to have graduates who will have an impact in high-growth environments.”

Professors on Cornell’s 12-acre campus in New York will teach only postgraduate degrees, and with the exception of a handful of dual degrees taught through the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute, part of Cornell’s partnership with Technion in Israel, all the masters programmes will be just a year in length. “If you take any discipline that underlies the digital age, we will be launching a course in it,” says Prof Huttenlocher. The plan is to launch eight degrees in an eight-year timeframe.

In anticipation of the opening of the Roosevelt Island campus in 2017, Cornell Tech has already launched its first master degrees in its temporary home in Google’s New York offices and began teaching business courses there in May. “We’re looking at the way technology is changing the way business is done,” says Prof Dutta. “This is not just an MBA for engineers.”

One of the biggest challenges to the Cornell Tech venture will be to develop a single teaching group across what is traditionally seen as a number of departments. All faculty hiring in New York will be for a single faculty, says Prof Huttenlocher. “It forces a dialogue. One of goals is to have new types of engagement.”

Fundraising will be yet another issue. In the first phase of its growth alone, Cornell will need to raise $1bn in philanthropic gifts, but a third of that – $350m has already been donated by Chuck Feeney, the Irish-American co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers.

The other big challenge will be to ensure that the New York campus does not drain the energy from Cornell’s home campus in Ithaca, a four-hour drive from New York City. “It is critical that we don’t do things that harm the mother ship,” says Prof Huttenlocher. “We can’t allow it [the New York campus] to be a risk, it has to be a benefit.”

Undergraduate degrees will still be best taught in Ithaca, he believes, as undergraduate students on average take 40 per cent of all their classes outside their home school. “There are some wonderful things about Ithaca, but people just drop by here [in New York]. We want this to be a convening place. The piece it is harder to do in Ithaca is the day-to-day interaction with the real world.”

Prof Dutta, formerly a professor at Insead, is comfortable with the new model. “What I’m hoping to do is bring some of the experience of Insead to Cornell. There’s no school that has done the two-campus school as well as Insead,” he says.

The culture of the New York campus will be very different from that in Ithaca, says Greg Pass, as his job title alone suggests – he is Chief Entrepreneurial Officer. “It’s very much a start-up here.” The use of space on the new campus will be more like a tech start-up than a traditional university. And process will have to change too, he says.“The world has changed since the current technology transfer system was put in place. It works in things like pharma, but in IT it doesn’t work. There’s a whole rethink we need to do about tech transfer.”

The new environment will have the advantage of being in Manhattan – it is just four stops on the subway from Midtown – but will have the advantage of being a campus-based university, says Prof Dutta. “We can play the technology card with MIT and Stanford and the New York card with Columbia and NYU.”

The ethos of the campus will mean that the MBA will be very different too, says Douglas Stayman, associate dean for MBA programmes at Johnson. “Business schools evolved to address the needs of large industrial businesses. That’s the DNA of a business school. In New York it’s the DNA of this campus to include technology and innovation and connection to business. We feel we have a chance to create not just a new MBA, but a different kind of MBA. We really believe there is a need to do this.”

The first MBA students began in May 2013, and between 25 and 45 students are expected in the first programmes. It is Prof Dutta’s goal to build this up to hundreds of students a year, potentially more than any other one-year MBA from a top-ranked US school. “I want Johnson to the take the leadership of the one-year MBA in the US.”

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