The mayor of New York does not usually take time from his schedule to mingle with academic deans from Finland. But there was Michael R. Bloomberg at the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, trying to sell the foreign visitors on his next big idea: a top-flight applied sciences school for the city.
Such a school, envisioned as one of the largest development projects in the city’s history, could transform the local economy and help burnish his image as a financial steward.
The idea is one of the more imaginative proposals to come out of Mr. Bloomberg’s City Hall, but it may also be among the riskiest. The city has pledged to offer capital and public land to the university that drafts a winning proposal; 27 institutions — including Columbia, Stanford and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology — have signaled their interest.
Critics have deplored the city’s willingness to offer incentives at a time of economic distress. And the mayor has angered local university leaders with his suggestion that New York lacked a top-tier engineering school. They argue that the city should instead use its resources to help expand existing programs.
“In a period of economic crisis, when we are so tight with our budget, we should not be giving incentives to private institutions,” City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan said. “We have great programs here.”
Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a group of business leaders that has supported the effort, said university leaders were keenly aware of the mayor’s clout as a philanthropist and his record as an entrepreneur.
“He’s not your average hometown mayor,” Ms. Wylde said. “His personal credibility in all sectors relevant to higher education is a huge attraction for the academic world.”
George Campbell Jr., president of the Cooper Union, which was one of the institutions that submitted a proposal, said: “There’s no question that he’s a big factor. He clearly understands the importance of this area.”
Stanford officials have embarked on one of the more aggressive efforts to woo the city. They propose building a campus costing more than $1 billion that would be home to 2,200 graduate students and 100 professors.
“When the mayor made the announcement, there was some real enthusiasm,” said John L. Hennessy, Stanford’s president.
The city, in return, has said it may be able to offer $100 million or more in capital, perhaps through investments in infrastructure or loans, according to a state lawmaker briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his relationship with city officials.
The idea for an applied sciences school came in the aftermath of the financial crisis as city officials looked for ways to make the economy less dependent on Wall Street. They saw potential in the applied sciences, which include engineering, physics, computer science, chemistry, mathematics and environmental science.
“There are industries that are here that are just not growing as fast as they could be, and there are industries that aren’t here but could be here,” said Seth W. Pinsky, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
Compared with Boston, a hub of higher education, New York lags far behind in engineering, with nearly half the number of professors and a small fraction of the research money per faculty member. None of the city’s graduate engineering schools are listed in the top 10 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings; the closest is Columbia, at No. 16. Each year, a steady tide of engineering graduates flows from New York schools to start-ups in California.
But exactly how to invigorate applied sciences in the city has provoked debate even as the idea has won support from politicians and large corporations like Google.
The city is already home to several engineering programs, including Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, the Cooper Union and the Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York.
Columbia, joined by the City University of New York, has proposed a 1,200-student, 80-professor institute for communication technologies in West Harlem. N.Y.U., joined by CUNY, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Toronto and I.B.M., has suggested a center for urban science that would be home to 300 students and 100 researchers in Brooklyn or on Roosevelt Island.
Some university officials worry that involving a university from outside the city would hamper the efforts of hometown institutions to recruit faculty members.
In N.Y.U.’s proposal to the city, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, officials for the university, which is planning an expansion of its engineering programs in Brooklyn, wrote, “A ‘start from scratch’ approach that parachutes a new player into New York without the requisite ingredients that lead to success has the potential to be a waste of resources.”
The reaction was similar at Columbia, which is planning an expansion into Manhattanville.
William A. Zajc, chairman of Columbia’s physics department, said the idea for an applied sciences school was a “field of dreams venture.”
“We’re being asked to believe you can create a new major research facility out of vacant real estate?” Dr. Zajc said. “Silicon Valley didn’t spring up because Santa Clara or Palo Alto went out and solicited proposals for an engineering center. They relied on existing strength.”
Mr. Pinsky said the city would happily partner with New York schools if they suggested ideas that “moved the needle.”
Some have faulted the city for not clearly articulating how it might recover some of its investments if the school does not turn out to be the economic engine that the mayor expects. Some academic leaders say the money would be more wisely spent on helping young engineers start businesses after they graduate.
Mr. Pinsky said the city would soon formally evaluate the costs and potential benefits of an applied sciences school. “We’re not entering this assuming failure,” he said. He said investing in infrastructure would help the city recover from the economic downturn.
The city is expected to choose a university by the end of the year, and construction could begin soon after.
Mr. Bloomberg, who majored in electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, will presumably be long retired from public office when the school is completed. That has not stopped speculation that he may one day lend his philanthropic support to the endeavor.
“If this were like Saudi Arabia and somebody committed $300 million up front,” Dr. Campbell of Cooper Union said, “this could get done much quicker.”