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Cornell's Role in Upstate New York

The New York Times is running a sobering article today on Upstate New York's "brain drain" and the exodus of tens of thousands of young and highly educated Upstate New Yorkers from the state to points further south and west. Every single Upstate county lost 25-34 year-olds between 1990 and 2004, except for one:

From 1990 to 2004, all but one of the state's 62 counties recorded a decline in 25-to-34-year-olds, ranging from 1 percent in Manhattan to 42 percent in Tioga.

The sole gainer was neighboring Tompkins County in the Finger Lakes, where Cornell University, Ithaca College and tourism have boosted the job market.
There is no doubt that Cornell's presence in Ithaca and elsewhere across Upstate is a boon to the state's economy and one of the bright spots in an otherwise tepid economic landscape. And Ithaca would look remarkably different were it not for its two educational institutions situated high above Cayuga's waters – just take a drive through any of the other assorted Finger Lakes cities to see the effect for yourself -- most of the Southern Tier in New York State is increasingly looking like Appalaicha. Cornell and Ithaca College attracts students with disposable income, upper-middle class faculty families, and the associated professional and service-oriented workforce. Cornell also facilitates economic development and planning for the region, and is instrumental in TCAT funding, maintaining airport service, and investing in Ithaca's resurgent downtown core.

But how much more could Cornell do to facilitate the Upstate economy? A lot, I tend to think.

One thing that always surprised me was that Cornell doesn’t do more to incubate and support technology firms started by its own graduates and professors. If you look at the areas in the country that are on the forefront of technological research and development, and coincidentally, job growth, it is easy to see that these areas are highly correlated with a supporting university that takes proactive steps to incubate novel business concepts and providing the seed funding necessary for the start-ups growth. MIT and the 128 corridor outside of Boston, Duke/UNC-Chapel Hill and the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the University of Texas in Austin, Northwestern University outside of Chicago, and Stanford and Berkeley in California’s Bay Area all come immediately to mind, and all are characterized by high-tech job growth and university investments in the start-up business environment.

Granted, Cornell has made some steps in the right direction in this regard. The Cornell Agricultural and Food Technology Park in Geneva, New York is attempting to incubate new biotechnology firms. But this is but a drop in the bucket compared to what Cornell can and should be doing. If Cornell, in concert with other top science and engineering schools Upstate, like the University of Buffalo, University of Rochester, RIT, Syracuse, and RPI made a vested, institutional commitment to developing Upstate’s business climate by investing in locally-based technology start-ups, I would venture to say that Upstate’s economic climate would be radically different if this were the case.

Another area where Cornell could do much more to aid the economic condition of Upstate New York is to help inform and improve the nature of public policy debate across the region. Municipalities and counties are struggling under budget deficits and demographic shifts, and nary any outside experts are coming in to assist these governments in shoring up their finances and implementing policies conducive to job growth. Here in Boston, social science departments from Harvard, MIT, and Northeastern are constantly assisting local policy makers in coordinated and dedicated efforts to make the area more conducive to job growth and economic opportunity. I know that during my time in Ithaca, at least, there may have been some outside advising by one or two faculty members across the various departments (Urban Planning, AEM, ILR), but the University had no coordinated, institutional commitment to public-sector policy and outreach in order to bolster the economic condition of Upstate’s communities. The CIPA program is new, marginally important, and underfunded, while Cornell’s contract colleges (all of which have economics/policy departments) very rarely work in tandem with each other in terms of economic education and outreach.

Of course, perhaps the University doesn’t want to make an institutional commitment to the economic well-being of Upstate New York. After all, its operations depend in-part on low-waged service workers that are able to be abundantly found among Tompkins county’s poorest populations. But Cornell, as a land-grant institution, has an inherent commitment to the economic well-being of New York State. And I have a gut feeling that Upstate will not be able to cure itself of its economic ills without strong leadership from Cornell’s part.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on June 13, 2006 (#)

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