Oct 302012
 

Published: October 30, 2012

Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times
The location of an extension campus that Northeastern University is planning to build in Seattle.

In Seattle, Virtual University Will Have a Physical Campus, Too

By KIRK JOHNSON

SEATTLE — With name tags clipped on and PowerPoint at the ready, officials from Northeastern University invited prospective students in one night last week for a peek at a new extension campus, 2,500 miles from the school’s home in Boston and about as far northwest as you can get in the lower 48 without swim fins. It is a trend that many colleges and universities have embraced in recent years — remote campuses to extend the brand and the flow of tuition checks.

But there was more going on here. And all the new dean, J. Tayloe Washburn, had to do to demonstrate that was walk to the bank of windows in the meeting room where the prospects and the staff had congregated and throw wide his arms: the headquarters buildings of the tech giant Amazon.com filled the view under a gray Seattle mist.

“We’re very aware we’ll be sitting across the street from 12,000 Amazon workers,” said Mr. Washburn, a prominent Seattle lawyer and former chairman of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Remember the notion that technology would destroy the idea of place, creating work forces of telecommuters and disembodied companies — or universities, for that matter — that were no longer anchored anywhere because they did not have to be? Turns out to have been entirely wrong, say Northeastern officials, who are enthused over what they see as a post-recession technology boom in the making in places like Seattle, and one where postgraduate science and technology workers are in particularly short supply

Being where the action is, with a smile and shoeshine and the reputation of a 114-year-old research university to back it all up, they say, is more important than ever. Starting in January, Northeastern will offer online graduate-level courses here, taught by instructors back East, alongside real classroom courses in a Seattle neighborhood called South Lake Union, once more known for warehouses than Wi-Fi. In recent years, a cluster of health science research and computer science companies have also gathered to rub shoulders with Amazon.

“You have to be present on the ground, you have to understand the community, you have to become part of the community,” Northeastern’s president, Joseph E. Aoun, said in a telephone interview. A reliance on remote learning alone does not, he said, build relationships, a word he used repeatedly. “It’s mutually reinforcing — the virtual is going to lead you to have the need for a physical presence and physical contact,” he said, “and the physical contact is being supplemented by the virtual dimensions.”

Economists and urban affairs experts say that in a strange way, the Great Recession intensified the concentration of technology workers here that Northeastern is aiming for. Industries like finance and construction, which had been big local job generators before the crash, fell away sharply, but Seattle-area stalwarts like Amazon, Boeing and Microsoft continued to grow, or at least hold stable.

At the same time, the University of Washington — the dominant higher education institution in Seattle, and also a neighbor to Amazon — got battered by years of deep budget cuts and tuition increases during the recession, as did many other public universities across the nation.

“What the recession did is it froze a lot of people in place,” said Margaret O’Mara, an associate professor at the University of Washington who teaches American urban history and has written widely about technology centers, especially Silicon Valley. “But it also, in a way, entrenched the geography of innovation, in part because people weren’t selling and buying homes with such quickness and it was a little harder to change jobs.” And all that compounded the larger trend, she said: “In a digital world, place matters more than ever.”

The president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Maud Daudon, said that having Northeastern in town, especially in the emerging hub around Amazon, could itself be a new draw to the area. “Northeastern’s presence will help to close the gap between businesses trying to fill positions, and trained, qualified candidates available to go to work,” she said.

She said that with thousands of people expected to move into the area in the next few years, there is even talk of a South Lake Union area public school. As of the middle of this year, 20 residential apartment and condominium projects were under construction downtown, up from three in 2010, according to the Downtown Seattle Association, a nonprofit economic development group.

But prospective students dropping in to check out Northeastern’s new digs mostly had to imagine it. The classrooms are still virtual, as in still under construction.

“I’m the new dean of a campus that doesn’t exist yet,” Mr. Washburn said in welcoming the attendees as they munched on sandwiches.

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