Center for an Urban Future/Community Service Society Forum: “Great Cities, Great Universities”

July 23, 2009 | Speeches and Testimony

We’re here to speak about New York City’s human capital. So let me begin by sharing a few thoughts of my own, as a way of starting today’s discussion.

New York City has long held the distinction as being the world’s capital city; the place that attracted more than its share of talent across myriad industries, arts and culture, universities, and sports. Innovations often happened first here and if they were successful, spread to other parts of America and around the world. If you could make it here you could make it anywhere, as the song goes—that maxim has often been invoked and has sometimes even been true. But for New York City to continue to lead and be a beacon for talent, to be that place where ideas are born, develop, and then flower, we must understand that a knowledge-based economy has at its core people who are highly skilled, well educated, and look to live and work in communities that understand their needs and reduce the impediments that often put the brakes on forward momentum.

New York’s strength has long been its ability to attract human capital. If we want to know whether that ability can be sustained into the next generation, I think it’s important to identify what has traditionally made New York an attractor—and how those factors can continue to draw talent into the future. Let me suggest at least five of the city’s key assets:

  • First, New York has always been welcoming to immigrants and migrants—educationally, socially, culturally. No matter where you’re from, you can find your native language spoken here, neighborhoods that embrace you, places of worship, and public schools.
  • New York also offers unparalleled cultural opportunities. Why work in New York City? Because when you’re not working, your life is enriched in countless ways: through museums, theater, opera, architecture, literature, history, and every kind of live performance—whether in the heart of the city or in your own neighborhood.
  • Our city also offers preeminent health-care options, including access to high-end facilities and esteemed specialists—albeit with inequities that still need to be addressed. Few things are more emotionally compelling than the health of our families. Being in close proximity to top-notch health care offers peace of mind and a sense of security.
  • New York has had great public schools, providing families access to high-quality education. We all know of the exemplary efforts of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein to bring back the stature of the schools. This is a critical effort. Knowing that you can send your children to a public school, where they will get an education to prepare them for college, has historically been a significant draw for city parents.
  • Likewise, the presence of top-notch universities means not only a range of opportunities for higher learning, but the lectures, performances, community service, and research that such institutions bring to a city. Examples abound of the businesses and talent that have sprung up in close proximity to the intellectual capital at our great universities: in Northern California, Rt. 128 outside Boston, Research Triangle in North Carolina, Midwest universities and agriculture, and Nanotech (Sematech North) at SUNY Albany. These synergies have paid off handsomely.

I would submit that these are some of the major factors that have made New York City vibrant—factors that have allowed it to attract and retain talented, creative, and skilled workers. For generations, people have come to New York City not simply for a job but for the quality of life that the city provides. In order to sustain the city’s human capital advantage, we must preserve these assets. We must sustain the attractors of talent.

So how can we capitalize on what the city offers?

It won’t surprise you that I believe that further improving our public schools and universities must be a priority for New York City. Employees need to know that they do not have to go into debt to ensure that they and their children can get an excellent education, one that prepares them well for the future. Employers need to know that they can draw from a well-prepared workforce pool, with a wide range of skills and credentials.

New York’s public schools are a vital resource for the state. An estimated 79 percent of students enrolled in grades K-12 in New York City are enrolled in public schools. Of the city’s undergraduates who are enrolled in college in New York State, well over half are enrolled at a CUNY college. So, to a great extent, the city’s success depends on the success of our public educational institutions—both K-12 schools and public universities.

Looking forward, I’d like to suggest several fundamental ways that higher education, with the support of the city and state, can help New York remain a vital attractor of skilled workers.

First, while job training is an essential part of education, a college degree is much more than a job application. Employees and employers will always be well served by a workforce with advanced critical thinking, judgment, and communication skills. In a world that is increasingly unforgiving of those without such skills, a university must maintain a principled, well-rounded, and modern curriculum. At CUNY, we continue to emphasize the importance of high academic standards, rigorous programs, and talented faculty, in every college, at every level. All graduates must have a strong educational foundation—for life and for work—and be prepared for high-skills, long-term careers.

Second, we must emphasize the importance of graduation. Let’s be clear: a degree matters. Degree holders earn more over a lifetime than those without a degree, and they have greater career security and resiliency during tough economic times like these. But today, according to the Gates Foundation, only about 20 percent of full-time students at community colleges nationally earn an associate degree in three years. That’s unconscionable.

We know that there are many reasons why students don’t complete their academic degrees—inadequate preparation, financial pressures, and family obligations, among them. We simply must address these concerns more aggressively. That’s why I have been calling for a concerted effort, both nationally and here at home, to improve graduation rates at our community colleges, where almost half of our nation’s undergraduates currently study. The recent announcement by President Obama to provide $12 billion in funding to community colleges, mostly to boost graduation rates and challenge us to think about new designs for student engagement and learning, was particularly welcome news.

CUNY is now in the formal planning phase of developing a new community college in Manhattan. The college will address our explosion in enrollment, but most important, it will draw on lessons we’ve learned from our current initiative with New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity, called the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP. Like the initiative, the new college will incorporate innovative practices into the curriculum to encourage degree completion—such as full-time study and enhanced employment support. This new approach has already put the ASAP initiative on track to graduate at least 60 percent of its first cohort in three years, by June 2010.

A third piece in sustaining New York’s attractiveness involves our ability to identify and respond to growth opportunities in emerging and high-need markets.

For example, two growth areas have been a particular focus of CUNY’s: health care and energy. Not only are we graduating more students in nursing education and health-care technician education, but we are also developing two new health-related schools: a CUNY School of Public Health, which will be located in Harlem; and a new School of Pharmacy, to be located at York College in Jamaica, Queens. And we are also focusing on how human capital needs will be affected by the “greening” of New York City. We are preparing all levels of the workforce—from creating entry-level positions for “assistant energy auditors” to re-training engineers and architects to work under new building energy codes—and we have made clean and renewable energy a top research priority.

But when we talk about issues like job training, economic development, and labor needs, it’s critical that we emphasize a central point. Our city’s higher-education degree, retraining, and professional development programs prepare thousands of people to work in the city—but the sad reality is that often the jobs they trained for are not here. As a recent New York Times article pointed out, “Job retraining is…ineffective without job creation.” New York City has 220,000 small businesses, and they employ half of the city’s private-sector workforce: 1.5 million people. But without access to working capital, small businesses can’t rent space, purchase equipment and supplies, or hire workers. The job openings they hoped to fill vanish along with their business plan. This recession has largely been a credit recession—and that’s had a devastating effect on small businesses. For university retraining programs to be effective, small businesses (worthy of financing) must get the financing they need—especially now, with the SBA providing significant protection to lenders. What we need is a coordinated effort, a triangular compact, among government, business, and universities. Government can take the lead by creating a climate conducive to attracting private investment opportunities around industry segments, while working with lenders to make access to capital more predictable and creating incentives for colleges and universities to develop the needed programs.

Experience demonstrates that every $1 million spent on small businesses yields 34 jobs. So I’m very pleased that the city’s Economic Development Corporation has advanced financing incentives to encourage entrepreneurial and small business activity in key sectors: the financial industry, retailing, and, most recently, media. The media and technology initiative comprises strategies to attract top talent to New York, including a Media Tech Bond Program to help companies purchase facilities, retrofit existing building, and make large IT purchases; as well as a Media Lab that will bring together companies looking to advance new media technologies with academic institutions undertaking related research. This kind of partnership among government, the financial sector, and universities is the key to developing the combination of job creation and job retraining that New York City urgently needs.

But two fundamental problems still loom large. First, attracting risk capital continues to be difficult with conduits to young businesses clogged by an uncertain business climate and the specter of ever-increasing levels of taxes. And second, business units continue to be lost to other localities outside NYC due in part to the portability of work provided by sophisticated technological applications. Both work to discourage small enterprises from making commitments to NYC.

One more equally important area must be given priority as we consider New York’s future—advanced research. Our city and our state rely on universities to be the originator of new ideas, the spur for new industries, the catalyst for economic development and high-skill jobs. Quality research takes time and resources, and today, we exist in a far more competitive environment for grants, both nationally and globally. The stakes are enormous.

Some of NYC’s more promising research assets are its premier medical centers, hospitals, and medical schools. One is hard pressed to find a richer concentration of leading centers of research, teaching, and practice than we have here. I believe that the 21st century will in part be known for advances in biology and medicine rivaling the importance of Watson and Crick’s discovery in the mid-20th century of the structure of DNA. Not only will these advances have profound impact on our lives, but with parallel work in technology, bioengineering, and applied physics, we will see new tools for diagnosis and treatment of diseases. These discoveries have the potential for fueling new fields that will enhance job creation. New York should be taking the lead—but supporting such high-end research has become very expensive.

That’s why I continue to emphasize the importance of collaboration and shared resources in building our research capacity. A significant example of the power of partnerships is the New York Structural Biology Center, which has been developed cooperatively by 10 research centers (including CUNY and SUNY, Columbia, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, NYU, Rockefeller University, Weill Medical College of Cornell, and the Wadsworth Center of the Department of Health). By leveraging the work of several partners to advance biomedical research, all of us gain the advantage of the high-end equipment necessary to that research—which would simply be out of reach of individual institutions. Today, the center houses the largest and most advanced cluster of high-field research magnets in the United States, and brings to bear an entire community of scientific talent to areas like structural genomics. This is the kind of collaboration that we must continue to foster if we hope to build our research capacity. In that same spirit, CUNY is developing an Advanced Science Research Center, a new complex now under construction at City College, which will support research in five emerging science disciplines—photonics, nanotechnology, water and environmental sensing, structural biology, and neuroscience—and bring together faculty from across the University.

When we consider the importance of research, we can’t forget the point I mentioned earlier—New York’s historically welcoming attitude toward immigrants. Today, post-9/11 immigration policies and practices have often brought lengthy delays and created unnecessary obstacles for scholars, scientists, and international students seeking to study and work in the United States. Backlogs and quotas often keep the most talented international scientists from joining us in advancing scientific education and research. The federal administration must make a priority of addressing these issues.

We must call on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. Department of State to simplify applications by students and scholars. Congress should act to grant automatic employment status to individuals with master’s and doctoral degrees in the STEM professions [science, technology, engineering and math]. New York will remain a center of scientific education, research, and development only if immigrants find their legal path here to be simple and smooth.

As I hope I’ve made clear this morning, there is much that New York can do to maintain its preeminence in attracting the best talent. This city must always be the idea capital for creative entrepreneurship, helping the best minds—with their boldness and even their swagger—to plant their seeds here. And I’m convinced that we can. Thank you.