Boyce Thompson Institute: from Yonkers to (almost) Oregon

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The Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) of Corvallis, Oregon, almost happened.

April 24 marked the 40th anniversary of the dedication ceremony for BTI’s current facilities on the Cornell campus. Prior to BTI’s founding in 1924, some of William Boyce Thompson’s advisers recommended that the plant science research institute be associated with a university. Instead, he built the Institute in Yonkers, directly across the street from his mansion.

Within a few decades, however, many BTI researchers began to push for a move to a university, citing a desire for more collaborative studies with other institutions, as well as increasing urbanization and pollution in Yonkers that adversely affected plant research.

BTI professors emeritus Alan Renwick and Bob Granados recall plenty of internal discussion.

“I definitely agreed that we needed to move on from Yonkers,” Renwick said. “The property had become surrounded by commercial properties, and there was always a feeling that we should be associated with a university.”

Granados echoed the sentiment.

“Our environmental biologists were finding more and more pollution in the air, and it was impacting their research,” he said. “The developing city was infringing on the science.”

George McNew, BTI’s managing director from 1949-1974, proved to be a shrewd negotiator, parlaying competing offers from Cornell and Oregon State University (OSU) against each other. In 1972, Cornell first pitched $6 million to build a facility on its campus for BTI, but the Institute would not have remained independent.

In 1973, Oregon’s state legislature upped the ante by passing a bill to provide $6.75 million to build and equip facilities for BTI on the OSU campus. BTI leadership was so impressed following a visit to Corvallis that then-Board Chair William T. Smith signed a Memorandum of Agreement with OSU, practically making it a sure thing.

Once word of the OSU negotiations became public, Yonkers native Wilson and then-SUNY Chancellor Ernest Boyer convinced then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to try to keep BTI in the state. Rockefeller introduced a bill to provide $8.5 million to build and furnish BTI facilities on Cornell’s campus.

The bill cruised through the state Senate 54-5 but encountered turbulence in the state Assembly until legendary Assemblywoman and Ithacan Constance Cook used her leadership skills to get it passed.

The additional $1.75 million provided by the state, plus Cornell’s agreement that BTI retain independence as an affiliate, swayed BTI’s board to vote unanimously for the Institute’s move to Ithaca.

In September 1973, McNew sent a letter to OSU Vice President for Research Roy Young that made clear how important New York’s efforts were to BTI’s decision:

“Had we not been a foundation incorporated in New York state, had the state political structure not shown such determination to retain us in this state or had Cornell and the State University of New York not been so perceptive in analyzing the worries and needs of our Board, there is no question but that we would have signed the agreement with OSU last Wednesday and probably broken off negotiations with Cornell.”

Most BTI faculty welcomed this decision, including Granados.

“Cornell’s reputation for agricultural science made it a no-brainer,” he said. “That was the place to be. That’s where all the action was...Cornell wanted us, but we needed Cornell.”

BTI and Cornell executed an Agreement of Affiliation in May 1974, and the Institute was up and running in the new location by October 1978. Following the dedication ceremony, BTI held a two-day scientific symposium titled, “Linking Research to Crop Improvement.”

“For the past 40 years, BTI and Cornell have enjoyed a unique, synergistic relationship that has benefitted the world-class research of both institutions,” said BTI President David Stern. “Most of our faculty also have appointments at the university, and Cornell grad students can obtain their degrees based on research performed here at the Institute.”

Aaron Bouchie is a science writer at Boyce Thompson Institute. This article first appeared in the Cornell Chronicle. East Hill Notes are published the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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