Crow’s vision attracts both praise, criticism

11-05-08 Crow
President Michael Crow (Kaitlin Ochenrider/The State Press)
Published On:
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
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When Michael Crow was inaugurated as ASU president in November 2002, he brought with him a then radical proposition: ASU could enroll any student that met acceptance requirements, yet improve as an academic institution.

“Most universities try to be excellent or be accessible,” said Virgil Renzulli, ASU’s vice president for public affairs. “I’ve worked with them, and they brag about how many people they reject.”

But Crow wanted something different. ASU, according to his vision of a “New American University,” did not have to be an exclusive institution in order to be a great one.

Unlike what Crow calls elitist schools, ASU aims to keep its same admission standards while offering higher quality programs and facilities.

“We’re going to make sure as this research university goes forward, it won’t separate itself from the people,” Crow said.

Crow’s legacy

Under Crow, ASU has gone from a third-tier to a first-tier university, according to the U.S. News and World Report. Since 2006, the University has been ranked in the world’s top 100 universities by the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a Chinese University. ASU is also one of the youngest research universities on the list and didn’t begin developing its research programs until the 1980s.

“It’s an unbelievable achievement of our faculty and our students,” Crow said.

ASU has expanded rapidly during the Crow years. When he gave his inaugural address in November 2002, Crow outlined his vision for ASU: The University would be more than a place; it would be socially embedded and a driving force in Arizona, seeking to improve its surrounding community. And the institution would be entrepreneurial in areas like science and research, and “aggressively seek new revenue streams,” Crow said in the address.

According to the National Science Foundation, ASU ranked 19th in the country in research expenditures for universities without a medical school. In the last fiscal year, ASU spent about $224 million — roughly double the figure from six years ago. This occurred even as federal funding for university research failed to match inflation.

“A university’s reputation is determined by its research capability,” Crow said.

The University has launched 16 schools during Crow’s tenure, many in “nontraditional areas,” including the School of Sustainability in 2006 — the first in the world.

“Our access has gone up tremendously because we now have more flexibility, more resources, more financial aid,” Crow said.

In an e-mail, Crow said ASU would boost Arizona’s low college attendance rates and graduation rates — rates that need to be improved for the good of the state.

“Arizona has one of the fastest growing populations in the United States. But Arizona’s system of higher education is vastly underbuilt,” he said. “ASU, in cooperation with community colleges, is committed to not only expanding colleges access for the citizens of the state of Arizona but also to increasing degree completion rates.”

Since Crow’s arrival and under his vision, ASU has added about 7 million total square feet of new construction and built a new campus in downtown Phoenix. The school has added internationally renowned faculty, including its first Nobel Prize winner, and grown its student population from about 51,000 in 2002 to about 67,000 in 2008.

In August 2006, ASU opened the Downtown Phoenix campus — a project that got off the ground only about two years after Phoenix voters approved a $223 million bond initiative to fund the new campus.

For John Chan, director of the city of Phoenix’s Downtown Development Office, ASU’s partnership with the city in making the new campus possible has been extremely beneficial.

The public university campus was a first for Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the U.S.

“Having high-level college graduates really helps to attract more technology and research into our community,” Chan said.

Renzulli said the model of the New American University has worked in a trailblazing way.

“I wouldn’t call it an experiment because it’s succeeding,” he said. “We’re cutting a path.”

But a world-class University does not have to be an exclusive one, Renzulli said.

The global marketplace demands more college graduates, and ASU has embraced a model that helps meet that demand, Renzulli said.

“We’re not just competing with New Mexico and Texas and California,” he said. “We’re competing worldwide.”

Criticism of Crow’s model

Still, some say ASU has been too quick to make significant changes.
Peter Rez, a professor in the School of Materials, said he disagrees with how quickly Crow has made fundamental changes to ASU’s pre-2002 university model.

Crow’s worldview, Rez said, has been that “the world is changing so fast, if we don’t act instantly we’ll be left behind.”

Because of this rapid pace of change, ASU has invested itself in areas it shouldn’t have, like excessive construction projects that expose the University to great financial risk but only give marginal benefits, Rez said.

Rez said he is annoyed with what he calls a “disconnect from reality” when the University officially talks up itself up in areas like research funding.

“In the end there’s one number that describes this institution, and it’s the student-faculty ratio,” Rez said. “They’ve gotten marginally worse under Crow. They certainly haven’t got better.”

According to the University Office of Institutional Analysis, the faculty-to-student ratio in fall 2001, under then President Lattie Coor, was 20 to 1. In fall 2007, it was 22 to 1.

Rez said the administration has not done a good enough job with basic administrative tasks, citing, for example, the widespread University payroll problems that occurred last year when ASU began using a new payroll system — PeopleSoft.

“Not only has the administration been trying to grab power within areas that aren’t really within its purview, it hasn’t been doing the job that [it] should be doing,” Rez said. “What the administration should do is make sure that the machine works.

“In that area they’ve been a dismal failure,” Rez said. “We’ve had this whole fiasco with PeopleSoft, where faculty and staff aren’t paid the right amount or on time.”

And hiring what ASU refers to as world-class faculty means too much is spent on a salary for one person rather than hiring several faculty members to teach more classes, Rez said.

The high-end salaries create a sense of unfairness among some faculty, Rez said.

“It’s like Wall Street. There’s this … inequality,” he said.
But Kenneth Mossman, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, said the new hires under Crow have served as magnets for other faculty.

“Under Crow, that has been a … priority, to bring in really top-flight faculty who can set the foundation for the long-term growth of the department,” he said.

Crow’s research agenda, Mossman said, has benefited ASU by increasing the University’s standing and developing areas like biotechnology and sustainability.

“He’s identified broad areas of research that he feels are right for growth potential within the University and can elevate the University to national standing,” he said. “President Crow’s hand, in terms of offering institutional-wide direction, has been very helpful in terms of growing the University and has been particularly beneficial to the School of Life Sciences.”

Striving for a positive impact

ASU will help Arizona — and the U.S. — meet the challenges that the world is facing in the 21st century, Crow said.

“We have refocused our research to meet some of the major challenges that the state and the nation face such as reducing global warming, developing new approaches to health care and renewable energy, and improving P-12 education, to name just a few,” Crow said in an e-mail. “That’s what we mean when we say the New American University stands for ‘impact.’”

But as a major research university, ASU cannot just strive for excellence; it has to increase college graduation rates for a state lagging behind, Crow said.

“The easiest way to improve quality is to cap enrollment. That’s what other institutions do. We don’t,” he said. “It’s not enough for a high-quality research university to graduate only 1,000 students a year.

“With global competition and a bachelor’s degree becoming the minimum qualification to enter the work force at any significant level, other universities need to look at our example of graduating upward of 10,000 students a year.”

Reach the reporter at matt.culbertson@asu.edu.