Michael Crow’s First Decade at ASU

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ASU President Michael Crow reflects on his first decade at ASU and his efforts to create a New American University.

Ted Simons: Michael Crow became president of Arizona state University 10 years ago. He took over with a plan to transform ASU into a new model of higher education. 10 years later, academic units have been redesigned and combined in unconventional ways, and ASU diploma is now considered more accessible and the University's research funding has more than tripled. According to crow, ASU has managed to compress 50 years of institutional evolution into just one decade. Joining us now is ASU president, Michael Crow. Good to see you again. Feel like 10 years?
Michael Crow:Sometimes longer, but yes.
Ted Simons: When you first got here, what did you set out to do at ASU?
Michael Crow: Well, really in the spirit of the Arizona constitution, Arizona has this constitutional idea about having Universities be deeply connected to the people, we thought, let's just go ahead and do that. Let's take a -- Make a University which is accessible to all the talented students that have the ability to University level work, and let's have all those students have access to a research grade institution. So we set out to do that. We set out to make that model work with the in a sense with what the true public University is supposed to do.
Ted Simons: And so the idea of a new American University was an idea that coalesced with what Arizona already had to offer?
Michael Crow: Not what it had to offer, in a sense of what it had as its goal. The University -- When the universities in Arizona evolved, they evolved in a way where they were not supposed to become elitist institutions, separate institutions from society. And in the modern way in which universities evolved, that often occurs. And so we set out to make certain that that didn't occur, that that original objective could actually be attained here in the 21st century.
Ted Simons: As far as inspirations or models you looked at, was it an idea of as you just mentioned, we don't necessarily want the academic silos and the -- This sort of thing, we do want something different, or did you have something in mind? Other universities, other institutions?
Michael Crow: There's a lot of ideas about how higher education should be organized there. There were a few writers, the former president of Cornell University, Frank Roads, put together a fantastic piece called creating the future. Where he had been president of CORNELL University for over a decade and he said Universities need to re-conceptualize themselves to be of greater service to the people, to have deeper impact in the people, with the people, to have broader access to a broader cross-section of individuals from all levels of socioeconomic status within our society. And he basically concluded, as did several others, that the models at that time around the year 1995-2000, were not meeting those objectives. And he was arguing for a new kind of enhanced model for American Universities to take.
Michael Crow: So with that in mind, you come to Arizona State University. Could you have done this at Mississippi State University? At Iowa state University? Was there something special out here that you saw that you thought this could work here?
Michael Crow: Absolutely. It was the willingness to innovate in Arizona. The willingness to still absorb new ideas. The willingness to change and still evolve. So Arizona itself and greater Phoenix itself are very much places still being made. And in places still being made, the institutions are still capable of evolving. So this is something I definitively saw in Arizona that made it very unusual.
Ted Simons: What was the first thing you thought needed to be changed?
Michael Crow: The first thing was to define a differentiated vision. To move to a point where we didn't have the generic public University vision of just we're here to serve, and let's be like every other University and let's just do the same thing. So the first thing was to build a unique vision, which we did by articulating this idea that we would measure our success not by who we exclude, but we would measure our success by who we include, and what we are able to do with their talent. How can we facilitate their talent.
Ted Simons: Did you get much push-back?
Michael Crow: You get pushback to any new idea everywhere. I got pushback about why was change needed, about, who are you to be suggesting that we need to make these changes? In an academic institution there's pushback about everything. That's fine. That's good. So you're able to have the academic argument, you're able to work it out, and then find a way to move forward.
Ted Simons: The idea of exclusivity, and we mentioned the academic silos and the things you mentioned, were they problems at ASU as much as they were at other institutions, or was it a different beast out here?
Michael Crow: No, they were problems here also as they are everywhere, because they were not adaptive, they were too self-focused, too focused on the faculty and the faculty's interests as opposed to the students and the students' interests. And so that was sort of the classic culture. We needed to move the institution to being more student centric. Our faculty, who are fantastic, who are -- They're unbelievable what they've been able to do, we now are operating a University which is actually representative of the socioeconomic diversity of the state. We're doing that with a research grade faculty, we're doing it with a research grade faculty that's working very, very hard, but we had to break off the old constraints and in a sense binders that held them down in the old structure.
Ted Simons: Was that difficult to do?
Michael Crow: All change is difficult. So the answer is yes, very difficult. But once we got through the initial successes, that is, on a smaller scale helping things to occur so that people could see success was possible, even the school of journalism, for instance, taking it from being a part of another college in an isolated area in a small facility, smaller activity, could we free that constraint by moving to downtown Phoenix, empower it to take on new levels of challenges and help to facilitate the success of the faculty and students in a new environment? Once we could show these things could happen, people began to understand the model for change was viable.
Ted Simons: It got a lot of attention. Newsweek magazine, the quote was one of the most radical redesigns of higher learning ever. When you're in the process, maybe you don't see it as others do from the outside, do you consider this a radical redesign?
Michael Crow: I consider it a radical updated design. Not a redesign. It's all institutions need to evolve, all institutions need to innovate, including Universities, or they lose their value. They lose their utility function. What we're trying to do in the case of ASU is take a fast-growing, fast-moving, socially dynamic, economically dynamic place like Arizona and build a public University for it, which is moving at the same speed. Adaptive at the same speed. Capable of reaching things that it couldn't reach before, couldn't do before, and to do that, maybe it's radical redesign, but it's just this desire to make innovation a core element of the institution's operating modality.
Ted Simons: I mentioned pushback within the University, have you had much from outside the University? Because again, there are a lot of folks who see the University maybe as read and write and arithmetic, maybe not being engaged with things happening in the city, the country, the world.
Michael Crow: We have gotten people to say, listen, we really like mediocrity and we think that's an objective. After I sort of stopped laughing inside my head I say, mediocrity has a problem, it can't be maintained and it always falls back to substandard and then to bad. And so we did get a little pushback from that, why are you attempting to achieve greatness with this University? Because that's our goal. Our goal is to have Arizona state University be the in a sense the model for what a public University is supposed to achieve. We also got external pushback and still get it from other universities who are saying, well, listen, you should raise your admission standards to shrink the size of your class so you can deliver your programs in the same model as colleges have been delivering for the last couple hundred years around the country. And we say, wait, are there other ways where we can innovate? Are there ways which we can enhance learning, deepen learning, help people to not take one major but five majors and can we do that at the lowest possible cost, and can we find ways through technology or other ways we can restructure or reorganize to do that? And if so, if so, if we do it that way, we get pushback from other institutions saying, this isn't the way to go.
Ted Simons: That's interesting. I was wondering, I asked whether you had instance inspirations or models and you mentioned Cornell, and institution there, have you had folks now calling you saying, we're interested? What are you doing out there? Or are you getting the other line, like, what are you doing out there?
Michael Crow: No, we've been visited by dozens of Universities, dozens of boards of regents and boards of trustees, ministers of higher education from around the world, so we get a lot of people wanting to look at our model, because they say with the model, it's far from perfected, but they can see that we're getting unbelievable improvement in learning outcomes, unbelievable performance from our faculty in terms of what they're able to achieve, we're operating with a very low cost to produce a University level graduate, among the lowest if not the lowest. So how do you achieve all those things in the same institution? People want to know that. So, yes, we get a lot of microscopic analysis of what we're doing.
Ted Simons: Talking about funding and costs and such, what's happening there and what are the concerns, and do you basically have to change when you got here, did you look at it as X but now you're looking at it as Y regarding funding?
Michael Crow: No. I think that the situation that Arizona just went through with its economy and the cutting back of the investment in the public institutions, I think that's a temporary adjustment. I think that the people of Arizona strongly support and value education. I think they want it to be more effective, they want to get more for their investment. That's different than not valuing it. I think they do value it. They want to see more innovation, they want to see more change. And that's the reasonable thing for them to want. So they want more for their investment before they invest more. And so we're prepared to operate under that kind of model.
Ted Simons: When you got here and you thought, 10 years out, I'd like to see this, or, that, did you envision this?
Michael Crow: Well, I am very happy about where our faculty and staff and our students and the community have been able to move the University. So about 40% of the state's population is eligible for Pell grant financial aid, about 40% of our undergraduates are eligible for Pell grant financial aid, that's not where we were 10 years ago. So we've made the University accessible to anybody from any socioeconomic background. We have then at the same time greatly enhanced the productivity and the creativity of our faculty, and now we've brought those two things together. That's very unusual if not unique within public Universities, doing those two things at the same time. I hoped that we would be able to do that in 10 years, we have been able to do that in 10 years, now we need to be able to going forward to improve and in a sense work towards perfection of the model, which is how can we get this very broad student body to be successful that the very high level of educational attainment?
Ted Simons: Does that change happen as rapidly or with the same speed or rhythm than the past 10 years?
Michael Crow: Well, I tell people we've done a lot as a team and we've advanced a lot as a team, but I feel like we're just getting wound up. I think that there are ways in which we can innovate more quickly, ways in which we can enhance the effectiveness, ways we can lower cost more quickly. And I think that all of those things can be accelerated because I think we're at a moment in time where technology is giving us a tool that didn't exist 10 years ago. We now have learning tools, we now have teaching tools and teaching platforms that we didn't have 10 years ago that are enhancing our learning outcomes and driving down our cost at the same time.
Ted Simons: All right. Well, it's been an exciting 10 years. Exciting for you I would imagine?
Michael Crow: Very exciting.
Ted Simons: good to have you here. Thanks for being here.

Michael Crow:President, Arizona State University;

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