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‘New American University’ fueled by scale, speed and diversity

Arizona State president sees an inclusive, tech-heavy higher ed model for a new time
University Business, July 2015
Arizona State President Michael Crow envisions an egalitarian institution committed to academic excellence, inclusiveness to a broad demographic, and maximum societal impact.
Arizona State President Michael Crow envisions an egalitarian institution committed to academic excellence, inclusiveness to a broad demographic, and maximum societal impact.

Michael Crow is out to reinvent the public research university. As president of Arizona State, Crow has made it his mission to create and spread a “New American University” model.

Using ASU as the prototype, Crow sees the promise of an egalitarian institution committed to academic excellence, inclusiveness to a broad demographic, and maximum societal impact. In Designing the New American University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), Crow and coauthor William Dabars survey the higher education landscape and set a path toward a new model, created specifically for a culture, a purpose and a population that couldn’t have been imagined when the current system evolved.

“We need to infuse the university with an openness to innovation and an openness to new designs as a part of our culture,” Crow says. “We can’t be running a railroad that someone designed for us 10 generations ago.”

Let’s start with a definition of the New American University.

It is one where you can have a research-intensive university that’s highly accessible and scalable, capable of moving flexibly and with agility in the overall higher education space.

The reason for that, clearly, is if you look at our outcome numbers in terms of actual college graduates being produced, graduates being produced compared with other nations, graduates being produced relative to what the economy needs, and so on, we’re nowhere near where we need to be. It’s time for a new design.

You announced that ASU would be a prototype for New American University at your 2002 inauguration. Where did the idea originate?

It was the result of several things. First, there were efforts to start urban land grant universities or land grant universities for the cities. We had the land grant model of a very accessible, high-quality research university that had been developed in the 1800s for agriculture and engineering. But, as most of our stresses and our challenges, most of our economic growth and opportunity, is increasingly concentrated in urban areas, why aren’t there urban land grants? This idea has been discussed for years but never went anywhere.

Then other writers came along, most notably Frank Rhodes, who had been president of Cornell, which was a land grant. He wrote a book called Creating the Future, in which he outlined what public universities of the future needed to be. He said we need to break down the ivory tower. We need to become more connected to our communities. We need to be more locally based and locally structured.

Another was former University of Michigan President Jim Duderstadt, whose book The University of the 21st Century described how these institutions could move forward.

So we took a lot of ideas from other people, and said it’s time for a new kind of design. We’ve had new university designs in the past, of course. But this would specifically be for the 21st century, for a highly urbanized, fast-moving knowledge-based economy with a highly diverse population, with a need to educate more and more people.

What made ASU particularly amenable to this kind of change?

Arizona was the last of the lower 48 states admitted to the union, so there’s still something of a pioneering attitude here. There’s a belief that old models are not necessarily the best models. They are just the old models. So, there was an openness to new ideas.

ASU didn’t become a university until roughly 1960. We were an education college and a teacher’s college before that, a teacher’s academy before that. We were not attached to a fixed model, so we had a few more degrees of independent design flexibility.

Did you have pushback from constituents or from board members?

I don’t know that I would call it pushback, but there are always reactions, both positive and negative, and there are always other ideas. Basically, we tried to turn the whole thing into an inclusive design process. We said we’ve got a set of eight design aspirations, and we have these ideas about how to advance on those design aspirations.

Very few people argued with the design aspirations. What they did argue about was the design particulars. But we were always open to other people’s designs. We created a design culture, allowing academics to become designers of their own social constructs, their own schools, their own departments, their own colleges. Once they realized that we were empowering design rather than forcing design, most of the negative reactions went away.

In the book you discuss the so-called Oxbridge and German models. Can we say that the New American University model is the best of both worlds?

That’s a good observation. The New American University model draws from the rich model of Oxbridge—which is this notion of fundamental learning and core learning—and the adaptive, high-speed German research university model. The New American University blends those two together, but in an American context. The American context is scale, speed and diversity.

Neither the German model nor the Oxbridge model is scaled, high-speed, or represents or serves a highly diverse population. We have a country that is living up to the dream of our founders, that this is the land of liberty. Everyone wants the American dream, and universities are a key part of that. We’re trying to scale up that accessibility, while others have been trying to downscale it in some ways.

Your approach makes sense, yet some elite institutions see it otherwise.

Those schools are built on well-proven, very successful models for small numbers of students who are able to pay a significant premium for a particular kind of learning experience.

But that only represents a tiny percentage of the kids who are in college. Most of the others are going to community colleges or public universities.

Where I think the resistance comes is in the belief that somehow status is derivative of exclusivity. But also I think that some public universities have lost the spirit of the land grant act, which stated that these universities were supposed to be for the sons and daughters of farmers and mechanics—meaning working-class and middle-class people. We have replaced outcome and achievement and social mobility with the granting of status upon admission to the school. That’s hard to get away from, particularly when the rankings highlight that.

You say there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between large-scale enrollment and academic excellence. How do you get there?

By changing our culture to a student-centric culture versus a faculty-centric culture. We get there by finding people who want to be on our faculty who are interested in doing a lot of research, doing a lot of scholarship, and doing a lot of teaching—not one in lieu of the other, but all together.

We’re not operating on fixed models. We’re operating on a fluid, agile model. We get there by then also infusing technology everywhere we can in every nook and cranny of the university that enables us to teach better, teach more individually, teach on a more personal basis. That allows us to deal with scale.

Speaking of technology, ASU has a reputation for technology adoption.

Yes. We’re not in awe of ourselves, but we’re in awe of all these tools that people have built.

We have learning tools, learning assessment tools. We have group collaboration tools. We have 150 externally developed tools, some by universities, some by companies, all integrated into our EdPlus at ASU learning platform. What our faculty have become enamored with is that they can see how these tools work and how they change outcomes.

We’re past the threshold of the naysayers—the people who are viscerally negative toward the introduction of technology. We see that we are actually teaching better. We’ve got better learning outcomes. We’ve got better empowerment.

Are other universities interested in replicating your model?

I bet we’re visited by five other universities a month in one way or another looking at what we’re doing. We’re appearing before their faculty councils. We’re beaming in by Skype and videoconference, answering questions. So it’s no joke.

This month we had two or three Australian universities, as well as other American universities. The directors of the leading universities in Vietnam were here. It’s a fairly constant thing. In fact, we’ve had to set up a little shop just to deal with all the visitors taking a look at what we’re doing.

Tim Goral is senior editor. 

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