Columbia is finalizing plans for a huge expansion of its engineering programs into Manhattanville —but if and when those plans will become reality remains unclear.
The plans are about to be submitted to a city-sponsored competition aiming to bring a new applied sciences campus to the city by offering space on Roosevelt and Governors Islands and promising $100 million in funding. But Columbia has a very different vision, one that reflects its plans for a new campus but which may hurt its chances with the city.
Since Columbia just freed up acres in Manhattanville, the University isn’t interested in the city’s proposed space. What the University does want is millions to kickstart a multidisciplinary center for engineering and data science, the first part of which would be located in a new building north of the future Jerome L. Greene Science Center and in the Nash building, according to officials involved in the planning.
“We think we can actually fulfill your visions better with what we’re doing here than anyone coming in and going to Roosevelt Island,” University President Lee Bollinger said. “But we’re not prepared to completely change our focus, our plans, our vision.”
The plans would be a huge expansion of the resources available to Columbia’s engineering programs, since they include 1,000,000 square feet of additional space and would eventually stretch to a third building north of 131st Street, according to the Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Feniosky Peña-Mora.
The new center, focused on data science, will involve more than just SEAS, pulling in faculty from the Columbia Business School, the Columbia Journalism School, the School of International and Public Affairs, the Mailman School of Public Health, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Peña-Mora described SEAS as the core of the plans and said that the additional space would initially allow them to hire about 100 new faculty members and to take on 1,000 students, mostly postgraduates, focused on researching “smart cities” and their environments, new media, cyber security, healthcare data, and finance. A second phase of growth could double those numbers, he said.
With the city indicating that it will decide the winners of the competition by the end of the year, Peña-Mora said that a small cohort of students could begin working with faculty on those data science topics as early as next fall.
Those new programs would also lead into two new degrees: a master’s and a doctorate in engineering with specialization in entrepreneurship and start-ups.
All of that is largely dependent, however, on whether Columbia wins the city’s money—something it appears unlikely to do. The competition has attracted bids from more than 25 schools, including Stanford University and Cornell University, with plans that stick closer to the city’s vision.
“We understand we’re at a disadvantage. We understand we’re the underdogs in this,” Bollinger said. “And the reason is because it looks like the city wants to use Roosevelt Island, they want to use Governors Island, and they want someone who’s new.”
What Columbia does have going for it is that it could potentially turn those plans into reality much sooner than other universities could, since the Manhattanville site has already undergone the elaborate and often contentious city land use approval process.
That was Bollinger’s focus when he met with the city’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Robert Steel, this spring.
“We are ready to build,” Bollinger told him.
Peña-Mora would not say if SEAS already has money available to use on expanding engineering in Manhattanville. “We are working on that,” he said.
“We’re putting all the energy into this, and we’re positive we’re going to put together a compelling proposal and win it. In event we don’t win it, we have to look at and rethink how we’re going to be able to do it,” Peña-Mora added.
Just the process of creating the plans and entering the competition will help the reputation of Columbia's engineering programs, said Richard Osgood, professor of electrical engineering, applied physics and applied mathematics and the director of the Center for Integrated Science and Engineering.
"I think if you look at it from a minimalist point of view, basically there's been a lot of attention on applied science and engineering in the last half year, which is good," he said. "There have been a lot of people talking with other people about what Columbia's capabilities are."
If Columbia loses, Bollinger said the competition would still have been useful for thinking through the University’s plans. “But we can’t do them if we don’t win,” he said. “It’s not as if we’ll just turn around and take the plan and implement it. We still have to raise the money to do these things. We don’t have a billion dollars to invest in these plans.”
The timeline would likely mirror that of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative—with a decade between having an idea with no funding and having a functioning space, Bollinger said.
But Peña-Mora did say that SEAS has already identified faculty members interested in researching those data sciences ideas and that they are prepared to begin that kind of interdisciplinary research with or without new space.
“I think this provides us a great start, great thinking, and I think those seeds will flourish,” Peña-Mora said.
These plans also mark the first indication of what specific uses Columbia has in mind for two spaces on the new campus: the Nash building—one of the existing buildings being preserved, which is located on the east side of Broadway between 132nd and 133rd streets—and the space one block south between Broadway and the Studebaker building.
They also may help reassure faculty members, many of whom were offended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s implication that the city was without a top-quality applied sciences school, that the University is committed to improving its science facilities.
“We’re very glad that city is focusing efforts on entrepreneurship, which is something we at Columbia have been doing for a while,” Peña-Mora said. “We have been here since 1754, and we are not going anywhere.”
Finn Vigeland contributed reporting.