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ASU is No. 1 in innovation, but what does that actually mean?

ASU was named the most innovative school in the country for the fourth year in a row, but what has the University done to deserve this title?

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Students use the crosswalk on College Avenue by the ASU Fulton Center in Tempe, Arizona, on Sept. 14, 2017. 

Editor's Note: This is an update of a 2016 State Press story on innovation at ASU.

For the fourth year in a row, ASU ranked No. 1 in innovation among all of the nation's universities.

The ranking was based on surveys of college presidents, provosts and deans. But the University’s Chief Research and Innovation Officer Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan said those surveys only partly express the level of the University's innovation. 

Unlike universities that have long-standing reputations, ASU has climbed the ranks in a short time, he said.

“Take an institution like ASU, which is like the new kid on the block," he said. "If you go to Harvard or Stanford, automatically some of them get the credit because they are good and they are known to be good. But we have to achieve it through ... demonstrating through real metrics of how we’ve progressed and how we’ve created an impact.”

ASU's external partners are major contributors to the University's innovation, Panchanathan said.

“In our partnerships for example – corporations and entities that share common values with us, like Starbucks, Mayo [Clinic], Adidas – all of these are mechanisms by which we are showing that we are doing a good job,” he said.

The “spirit” of innovation bleeds into every move the University makes, he said.

“When I say innovation permeates everything that we do in the institution, you take everything the institution is involved in, ranging from how we interface with our K-12 partners, how we attract students into ASU…” he said.

Panchanathan is the executive vice president of ASU’s knowledge enterprise development, a multifaceted initiative that acts as a platform for ASU students, staff and faculty to tackle global issues, according to its official website.

But he said that innovation is a result of a combined, University-wide effort. 

“I’m very grateful to the faculty and students and staff of this institution, and to our partners who have made this all possible because at the end of the day it is (them) who are doing that work that gets us that recognition,” he said.

How it came to be

The most innovative schools in the nation are determined based on a poll of the top college officials, according to U.S. News & World Report

These officials nominate the school they think has been the most innovative in the past year in terms of curriculum, faculty, students, campus life and technology.

"The decision for ASU, what led to it being named the most innovative school, was made using surveys," U.S. News & World Report Chief Data Strategist Robert Morse said in 2016. "We surveyed university presidents, provosts and admissions deans and I think that ASU has done a good job, or there is at least a broad awareness that ASU is doing something different."

Where does ASU stand

The U.S. News & World Report tackles a number of areas. For instance, in the 2017 report ASU was ranked 115 out of top national universities.

Yet in that same report, ASU was ranked above all of those schools in innovation. So what gives?

In the report, ASU is ranked No. 70 in best colleges for veterans, 53 in top public schools and 40 in best undergraduate engineering programs.

Why does ASU shine?

In terms of innovation, the report assess universities on a variety of factors including faculty, students, campus life, technology and curriculum. 

ASU has a higher student-to-faculty ratio than either Stanford or MIT, with a 23:1 comparison and with 40.9 percent of the classes having fewer than 20 students.

Stanford has a ratio of 4:1 with a high 70.3 percent of classes with fewer than 20 students. MIT has a 3:1 ratio and 69.6 percent of the classes have fewer than 20 students. 

Through the eyes of the President

ASU president Michael Crow takes great pride in the title, advertising not just throughout campus, but all over the Valley.

According to Crow, the most common praise people have for the school is that ASU was not built on exclusion and is also research-intensive.

"Our colleagues at colleges and universities around the country are very interested in what we're doing, and they pay close attention to all that we have been able to achieve," Crow said in a statement. "They know that all the cool stuff is going on at ASU." 

Crow said that ASU has earned recognition as the most innovative school in the nation because of a new model of learning that the University has implemented.

In a 2016 meeting with the State Press editorial board, Crow listed statistics that exemplify the University's innovative nature.

"In the last 14 years we have more than two times the number of degree seekers, almost three times the number of graduates, more than four times the level of funded research, which is a sign of our competitiveness, many times the diversity of the University we had before," he said in the meeting. "People will say, 'How did you do that?' It’s all through innovation."

Crow referred to ASU as the fastest-moving university that exists, saying that the online program for older students returning to school sets it apart.

"I met this kid the other day, he was about 27 years old, he was admitted to Yale or one of these schools and then his mother got sick, so he just didn’t go to college, he took care of his mom," Crow said. "She passed away, he came back to college and started later, online. We were the way he was able to come to college, so we think that’s a valuable service."

He said the online program is growing by 30 to 40 percent each year, and ASU is one of the only schools in the country to offer a program like it.

"We’re advancing these innovations at a really rapid rate and people are seeing that," he said. "We’re beginning to see lots of positive things that are happening, so I think they’re going to continue."

Reach the reporters at and or follow @alexisegeland and @niceledes on Twitter.

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