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Universities Power City's Economy

Universities Power City's Economy

Originally published in New York Daily News on January 7, 2007

It was recently reported that some 280,000 workers in New York 's thriving financial sector collect more income than the other 1.5 million people working in Manhattan put together. Another recent report found that while a growing number of CEOs are relocating their offices back to Manhattan , many support jobs that used to come with corporate headquarters remain elsewhere.

We want New York to be a desirable location for global business leadership. But with so many manufacturing and back office jobs having largely left the city for lower-cost regions in recent decades, where are the new opportunities for those in the middle - and those seeking an upward path there?

One local economic sector continues to create a range of such jobs: higher education. The city has some 116 degree granting colleges and universities, including a resurgent CUNY system and two of the most respected research universities in the world, NYU and Columbia . Collectively our local independent colleges and universities generate some $9.1 billion in direct spending and $21.2 billion in economic activity. As a result, our colleges and universities are critical not just to the city's intellectual life, but to its long-term economic vitality.

With approximately 14,000 employees, Columbia is the seventh largest nongovernment employer in the city. These jobs aren't moving out of the city or abroad because our mission of teaching and academic research is inherently rooted in a shared sense of place that allows ideas to thrive. That's why Columbia has proposed long-term growth of our existing academic community in the old Manhattanville manufacturing zone in west Harlem .

The fact is, institutions of higher education employ more than just neuroscience Ph.D.s on the one hand and unskilled, entry-level workers on the other. Two-thirds of our employees work across every level of support and administration: as accountants and human resource professionals, administrative and clerical staff, lab technicians and trained electricians. Our employment base is broadly reflective of the kind of mixed-income economy that used to exist in the manufacturing lofts and offices that once hummed in many of Manhattan 's older business districts.

At Columbia , more than two-thirds of our employees live in New York City . And nearly a third of our staff, not including faculty, live in Harlem , Washington Heights and other upper Manhattan neighborhoods. Minority-, women- and locally owned businesses earn more than a third of our major construction contracts.

Through the next quarter century, Columbia 's planned growth into west Harlem would create about 6,000 new jobs in an area that has been losing private sector employment for decades. Such growth is important to us because academic researchers, especially in medicine and science, need modern laboratory space to pursue innovative research. If universities in New York cannot provide such facilities, we will increasingly find that the best researchers will go to places that can.

Mayor Bloomberg has challenged us all to consider the public investments needed to sustain our city's projected growth in the decades ahead. But universities can help address two of the city's important long-term economic challenges: the need to create more middle-income jobs, and the need to attract the most pioneering thinkers who provide the intellectual capital so essential for any thriving world city.

We are a city that has always run on big ideas and that has always provided an engine of economic opportunity for people at every rung of the income ladder. Having research universities of the first rank that are a steady source of both good jobs and great minds is clearly one part of what it will mean for New York to maintain that kind of leadership.

--Lee C. Bollinger