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University Sprawl

My college, Columbia University, is planning a takeover in West Harlem. Within 25 years, University officials say, Columbia will expand with a new, $7 billion, 17-acre, Renzo Piano-designed satellite campus in “Manhattanville.”

The expansion is rife with ethical questions; long ago Columbia decided not to use the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council, and more recently, it has been exploring the possibility of using eminent domain to push out stubborn neighbors.

But perhaps what’s most interesting here is one of the main arguments made for expansion by University President Lee C. Bollinger, famous for the affirmative action Supreme Court case that bears his name and the running shorts he wears around campus.

In order for Columbia to remain a top-tier university, the school needs space, Bollinger says. The best students, the best teachers, (and presumably a whole lot of patent money) are more likely to come if they can kick their feet up. Currently, Columbia is feeling the same space crunch that all New York City tenants do: it averages 194 square feet per student. (Princeton offers 561 square feet, Harvard has 368 and the University of Pennsylvania 440.)

No one (including Bollinger) knows for sure whether more square footage will allow Columbia to be uttered in the same breath as Harvard or Princeton. Would giving scientists more room help them discover more cures? Or would more room just let Columbia lure marquee academic names? Would my GPA skyrocket if I could finally find an empty study cube in the library? Does a true leader prove his skill by recognizing the need to expand his organization or by succeeding within the parameters he is dealt?

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