Cornell University: The Power Of Social Presence

In 1993, well before West 42nd Street in New York City evolved into the tourist mecca that it represents today, the Disney Corporation placed a long term bet on the enduring power of social presence.

Social presence? Wikipedia calls it “one of the first theories of communication media.” It refers to the extent to which we are aware of the physical existence of others, and it is optimized when we are literally face-to-face with (or, at a minimum, in the same location as) others.

Disney’s traditional emphasis on theme parks and other live forms of entertainment stems from a belief that human interaction is more productive — and, at places like theme parks, more enjoyable as well — when it is conducted in the social presence of others.

That is why Disney officials agreed to restore and use West 42nd Street’s historic New Amsterdam Theatre in the 1990s; they imagined it as a venue for bringing films like The Lion King to live audiences. Its success, of course, helped launch the renaissance of Times Square as a world renowned entertainment district, and thus of New York City as a global cultural center.

From Entertainment To Education

Last summer, in the belief that social presence might be as compelling a factor in the field of higher education as in the world of entertainment, Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited universities with world-class science and engineering programs to develop proposals to establish a “live” campus in New York City.

He offered city-owned space on Governors Island, Roosevelt Island, or the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as well as up to $100 million in infrastructural improvements at each site. The real draw, of course, was not the land or the infrastructure itself, but rather was the opportunity to establish an academic footprint in the society and culture of the world’s greatest city.

In other words, despite the capability of electronic communication technology to create virtual communities, Mayor Bloomberg was banking on the validity of the theory of social presence to attract a global university to the Big Apple. Nine days ago, Mayor Bloomberg was vindicated, as it become self-evident that social presence theory is as relevant to the education field as it is to the entertainment sector.

Cornell University Emerges Victorious!

Several world-class universities submitted proposals to New York City, including Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, NYU, and Stanford. And all of their proposals contained highly impressive plans, though none was quite as impressive as the one that Cornell submitted in partnership with Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology.

The Cornell / Technion proposal promised to launch classes in temporary space next fall, with a move to a newly constructed Roosevelt Island campus within five years. It eventually envisioned a campus with 2,500 students and 280 professors, generating more than $23 billion in overall economic activity for New York City.

The deal-clincher was a $350 million gift from Cornell alumnus Charles Feeney, the co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers, to develop the campus. Ronald Ehrenberg, who directs Cornell’s Higher Education Research Institute, explained:

“The trustees and the president have long wanted to have a bigger presence in New York City. The notion that you can be a great international university in the 21st century if you’re located in rural upstate New York doesn’t work.”

Nine days ago, as Stanford University surrendered and withdrew from the proposal process, Mayor Bloomberg accepted the Cornell / Technion proposal.

The Inadequacy Of Technology

It is somewhat ironic that Cornell (which has already developed a world renowned medical school in Manhattan) and Technion (which has transformed the Israeli economy with a global technology program that is often compared to Stanford University in Silicon Valley and M.I.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts) believe that they need a physical location in New York City.

After all, although social presence theory states that face-to-face interaction is the ideal method of communication, it also posits that various audio and visual technologies (from text chatting to video phone calls) can be utilized to artificially replicate this level of personal proximity.

Cornell and Technion are certainly among an elite group of universities that are capable of developing new technologies to create a “presence” in New York City from remote locations. And yet both institutions determined that such technologies could not adequately develop the type of social presence that would be generated by a 2,500 student campus.

The Future Of Education

Although we live in an era when web-based communication technologies are ascendant in various industry sectors, adherents of social presence theory have never stopped supporting face-to-face instructional methods. That may be why Facebook founder CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently donated $100 million to support live instruction in Newark’s classrooms, and why the Gates Foundation continues to emphasize the need to support “the real work of real teachers in real classrooms.”

It thus appears that live human interaction is not about to go out out of style any time soon. That is indeed one reason why traditionalists can look forward to Cornell’s new Gotham campus in 2012.