From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, November 23,
Change Takes Root in the Desert
Embracing inclusiveness, Arizona State U. pursues transformation
on a grand scale
A Research University for All People 1
By Goldie Blumenstyk
By itself, Arizona State University's transformation over the past
decade into the nation's biggest public university wouldn't be all
Yet by the measures on which it prides itself-its 9-percentage-point
increase in freshman-to-sophomore retention rates, its 48-percent
increase in bachelor's graduates in STEM fields, its tripling of
spending on research, its top-5 rank as a producer of Fulbright
students, its above-average increase in the proportion of Pell Grant
recipients enrolled, and even its increasing efficiency in spending
per degree awarded-it's clear that the size of this university has
been key. ASU's size helped make those achievements possible, and it
makes them all the more significant.
Enlarge Image A Research University for All People 2
American higher education has been enriched by the imaginative
educational approaches championed by tiny experimental
institutions-work colleges like Deep Springs in high-desert
California, or havens for interdisciplinary studies like the College
of the Atlantic, where leaders today are studying how to use the
virtues of a college's smallness to its strategic advantage.
But with the nation fixated on the cost and value of a college
education-and with America itself becoming a more ethnically diverse
society facing increasingly complex global problems-a growing cadre
of college leaders say the country needs bigger institutions with
broader ambitions playing a more substantial role.
Arizona State's own president, Michael M. Crow, is perhaps the most
visible and insistent of that cadre, a regular headliner on the
reinvention circuit who says the challenge is to "find ways to
massively innovate" without resorting to a higher-education
future where "we let rich kids get taught by professors and poor
kids get taught by computer."
The grand (or, as some deride it, grandiose) experiment that ASU calls
its New American University model, set here amid the sprawl of one of
the nation's fastest-growing metro areas, aims to be one answer to
that challenge: a capacious institution with what Mr. Crow calls
"the research intensity of the best of them," an unusual
academic structure with "fused intellectual disciplines"
meant to reflect the way knowledge is developed and applied today, and
a culture deliberately focused on admitting and graduating a student
body that is ethnically and economically representative of the
In the status-conscious world of research universities, it's that last
element that especially stands out. "We define ourselves by who
we include, not who we exclude," is Mr. Crow's explanation of
that ethos, a phrase repeated so often here by deans and department
chairs that it starts to sounds like an institutional oath.
"We've decided enrollment growth is a function of our mission,"
says Mr. Crow. And "we've built the institution to be capable of
Yet that very ambition and rapid pace of change are also a source of
some skepticism. The university's debt has increased by 49 percent
since the 2007 fiscal year, leaving the institution increasingly
reliant on rising enrollment and out-of-state students to cover its
costs. The proportion of out-of-state students has increased from
about 25 percent in the fall of 2002 to more than 31 percent today,
and the university is looking especially to California to fill its
pipeline, even going so far as to buy advertising space on the bins
that travelers put their shoes in when going through security checks
at several Southern California airports.
And while many of its academic changes have brought the institution
national and even international attention for inventiveness-thanks
mostly to Mr. Crow's energetic ever-presence in the promotion of
ASU-some of the academics who have left, and some who are still here,
wonder if the new model will have staying power.
With all there is to admire about the transformation of Arizona State,
says Jonathan Fink, a former director of ASU's Global Institute of
Sustainability, the momentum it requires is hard to maintain. "A
lot of us have jokingly talked about writing an article on 'The New
American University Bubble,'" he says.
A 4-Pronged Overhaul
As it has gone from an enrollment of about 57,500 in 2002 to more than
73,000-adding the equivalent of the University of Montana's entire
student body-Arizona State has followed four paths.
Physically, it has expanded. It's built futuristic-looking,
solar-powered science and residential complexes here on its palm-lined
main campus. It's erected new buildings for journalism, nursing, and
public-affairs schools at a new city-subsidized campus in downtown
Phoenix. And it's developed new kinds of "studio" teaching
spaces at a former Air Force base 45 minutes east of Tempe, in Mesa,
at ASU-Polytechnic, where a maze of austere-looking structures sit
amid courtyards of cactus plants and gravel on a campus with a
Administratively, it's deployed data-driven tools like its
"eAdvisor" program, which track students' progress toward
their degrees and help to assure that the university can provide the
classes students need when they need them. "We kind of have
'just-in-time inventory'" for course offerings, says the provost,
Elizabeth D. Phillips, who oversees the many projects here that
revolve around data. The university's size has also allowed it to
institute a new academic calendar, with some courses now offered in a
compressed seven-and-a-half-week minisemester instead of the
traditional 15-week one, giving students more choices on when they
want to attend class.
Pedagogically it's been retooling freshman courses in fields like
mathematics and engineering, to give students a more hands-on and
And perhaps most controversially within the institution itself, it has
radically overhauled the shape of the intellectual enterprise, shaking
up departments, schools, and colleges into new academic organizations
with names like the School of Human Evolution & Social Change, the
School of Earth & Space Exploration, the College of Technology &
Innovation, and the College of Nursing & Health Innovation. The
word "innovation" appears all over the place at Arizona
State; even the buses are moving billboards that declare, "ASU: A
School for Innovation."
Mr. Crow, who was named president in 2002, says much of what he's
pushed for at Arizona State has been inspired by educational thinkers
like Josť Ortega y Gasset, the early-20th-century Spanish
philosopher who argued that universities should have missions relevant
to their societies, and by James J. Duderstadt, the former University
of Michigan president who has written that universities' natural order
of change, via evolution and consensus, might not suffice in the
faster-paced 21st century.
Here, that mission is now defined by the eight "Design
Principles" that shape the New American University model-ideas
that ASU commemorates on 22 framed posters reverentially displayed in
every dean's office and other spots where students congregate, and on
the model's own flashy Web site.
Many of the administrative innovations are based on the data that
Arizona State collects about its students, which include not only
their progress toward their degrees but just about everything else,
too: whether their financial-aid is in order, whether they've
consulted with an academic counselor, and even how often they log onto
their "MyASU" accounts, which hold their course assignments
and other information. "We have lots of dashboards here,"
says Ms. Phillips, who says the tools are the university's way to
personalize a large place.
ASU tries to back up its talk about inclusiveness and individualized
attention with services, including tutoring centers like the one in a
basement classroom of a renovated Art Deco building in the heart of
campus here. On a recent fall morning, Carrie Dougher, a sophomore,
was there assisting fellow students on the principles of "uniform
"A lot of students have an exam in statistics on Friday,"
her supervisor explained as he dragged another chair into the
jampacked room. To ensure students have the information they need
about tutoring and other services, the center hands out business cards
that read "You Already Paid For It ... " and list an address
and scan code for the Student Success Center's Web site.
Easing the Way
The university has also begun a concerted program to ease transfer for
graduates of two-year colleges, headed up by a former
community-college president. Over the past six years, the number of
transfers has grown from 7,815 to 9,424 in 2012, including a growing
number from two-year institutions in cash-strapped California. Before,
credits would transfer, but the courses wouldn't necessarily apply to
students' majors or the university wouldn't have the upper-division
courses they needed, says Maria L. Hesse, the new vice provost for
academic partnerships and the former president of Chandler-Gilbert
Now hundreds of community-college majors from the Maricopa Community
College system and others have been "mapped" to comparable
majors at Arizona State. "Every week there is a data feed from
the community colleges to ASU," Ms. Hesse says, so deans and
chairs can know if the students are coming "next fall or two
falls out." If you promise access, she adds, "you'd better
have the seats available."
Thanks in part to the community-college transfer programs, the number
of undergraduate students on Pell Grants at Arizona State increased by
85 percent between 2006 and 2012-a rate that exceeds the increase of
about 75 percent for all of higher education in the same period. And
this year, the number is greater than 26,000, meaning nearly 45
percent of all undergraduates come from families needy enough to
qualify for a Pell Grants. The proportion of minority students
enrolled has risen by 43 percent over the same period, accounting for
a third of all students and 39 percent of freshmen.
Ms. Phillips says campuswide deployment of the tracking tools has
already paid off in several ways. The university's four-year
graduation rate was 32 percent for the class that entered in the fall
of 2005, the year before eAdvisor began. For the class that began in
2008 and just graduated, the four-year rate was 42 percent. And over
the past five years, the freshman-to-sophomore retention rates
increased from 76 percent to 84 percent.
Students' opinions of the tracking system are mixed. While some
appreciate the early warnings the system gives when they start to
perform poorly in a class or aren't taking the right prerequisites for
their stated major, others, like Emily North, a senior majoring in
chemical engineering, says she found resolving those "off track"
messages a bit of a bother in her early college years. "I knew I
was going to graduate, I just didn't know with what major," she
says. Still, says Ms. North, a resident of Rochester, Minn., who was
recruited to ASU's honor's college, she understands the system's
value. "Some students need more structure."
The value can also be calculated in cold hard cash. Each percentage
point in retention translates into $1.7-million in recurring
additional annual revenue, says Ms. Phillips, the provost-no small
matter for a university that has seen its state financing per
full-time-equivalent student decline from $8,100 in 2008 to $4,270
today. The university's overall budget is $1.8-billion. And according
to calculations by the outside consultants HCM Strategists, Arizona
State's cost per degree awarded of $59,698 fell by 2 percent between
2006 and 2011, and now stands well below the median for its
ASU has also made pedagogical changes on a large scale, particularly
in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and
ASU says its overhaul of freshman mathematics courses-a
much-chronicled experiment based on the adaptive-learning technologies
developed by a company called Knewton-produced better academic
results for students, now that they must demonstrate mastery of
specific skills before being allowed to progress in the self-paced
class. (Pass rates rose, too.) The math overhaul also allowed the
institution to cut its $2.1-million in faculty costs for teaching
9,225 freshmen by more than half, by eliminating 16 of the full-time
adjunct positions used to teach those courses. (Some of the people who
filled those positions were hired for vacant slots elsewhere in the
With its size, ASU is also able to operate two engineering schools,
each with a different focus but with a common goal of giving students
hands-on experience from the very start.
The College of Technology & Innovation, located at the Polytechnic
campus in Mesa, bases every course on a project in which students
solve a problem for a local company or community. Last year a team in
one class developed a "bio-digester" for a dog park in the
town of Gilbert to simultaneously solve the poop-disposal problem and
power the park's lights. The effort involved students from biology,
electrical and mechanical engineering, and psychology. Instead of
being held in classrooms, courses at the college are held in machine-
and tool-filled "studios" that resemble spaces you might
find at a specialty manufacturing company.
In more traditional engineering schools "we lose a lot of
students around the sophomore year," says Mitzi M. Montoya, vice
provost and dean, who first came to ASU to study its
interdisciplinarity and then stayed to run this college. Here, she
says, the retention rate is about 80 percent.
ASU has also transplanted some of those hands-on teaching approaches
into the first-year curriculum of its larger, more-traditional Ira A.
Fulton Schools of Engineering, and has built four new "eSpace"
classrooms-mini versions of the studios-here in Tempe.
New Intellectual Framework
Arizona State's most unusual effort may be the way it has taken apart
and reassembled major pieces of its intellectual infrastructure. Over
the past decade it has eliminated 69 academic units and created 30 new
ones, many of them along the interdisciplinary framework that Mr. Crow
famously champions as universities' best hope for developing
At a small college, focusing on interdisciplinarity can help make the
most of limited resources. For ASU, the creation of interdisciplinary
units opened up opportunities to bring in new kinds of scholars.
Before, departments were more territorial, making "it harder to
hire people at the boundaries of disciplines," says Robert E.
Page Jr, founding dean of the School of Life Sciences and now head of
the entire College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. Now, he says, it's
easier to hire ecological economists and other kinds of scholars who
"fit fine at the seams."
Matthew Garcia, a professor of history and transborder studies, says
the interdisciplinarity is part of what drew him to leave Brown
University a year ago for Arizona State. A scholar of Cesar Chavez and
Latino culture, he says the university's focus on student diversity
and its location in the center of the national debate over immigration
were also draws: "In many ways it's like going to Mississippi in
the mid-60s" as a scholar of black civil rights, he says.
Yet some of the new academic units, like the one Mr. Garcia directs,
the School of Historical, Philosophical & Religious Studies, have
been criticized by their own faculty members for lacking a reason for
being. Other changes, like the decision to move urban design into the
school of the arts, splitting it off from planning, also seem
illogical to some. "In a place that needs urban planning and more
emphasis on urban-design issues, we've fragmented that," says
Grady Gammage Jr., a local real-estate lawyer who teaches part time at
Among current and former Arizona State faculty and staff, Mr. Crow is
seen as a bully or a visionary or both. What's uncontestable is that
few if any modern-day university presidents play as strong a role in
academic matters as he has in reshaping ASU's. Higher-education
historians like his former Columbia University colleague, Jonathan R.
Cole, say that's more a tribute to Mr. Crow's determination (or, as
others privately call it, his arrogance) than a criticism. But, says
Mr. Cole, it's nonetheless a weakness: "If Mike was run over by a
bus, I don't know what would happen at ASU."
Robert Robb, a columnist at The Arizona Republic, says he worries
about that, too, not only because he foresees future management
challenges in running "a mammoth public university that tries to
be all things to all students" but also because he thinks the
whole approach is misguided. The Phoenix-Tempe region could use other
kinds of public four-year-colleges that would provide alternatives for
students who don't want "to get involved with the high-cost
research-university experience," and that could also save the
state money, he says.
Mr. Crow says Arizona State does some of that "inside ASU,"
by charging lower tuition at its Polytechnic campus and at another
campus, ASU West, which has a liberal-arts focus. But he says ASU's
real societal contribution is organizing itself so that all qualified
students can attend. As the nation grows more diverse, "I find it
unlikely that we will need fewer people educated in the environment
represented by research universities," he says.
In a slick new promotional booklet (complete with a space-agey video
clip narrated by Mr. Crow), ASU boasts of accomplishing "50 years
of evolution in 10." And more so than most other universities
with strategic plans filled with big visions, Arizona State, with its
embrace of its eight "Design Principles," has made itself
more diverse and accessible than before, and more research intensive,
too. But the lasting value and impact of the intellectual redesign is
harder to assess, however impatient the university is to declare it a
Still, ASU is already working on ways to ensure its new approach
sticks beyond Mr. Crow's time at the helm, and on getting other
institutions on board. Of the five themes for a new fund-raising
campaign developed by its office of Solutions (yes, another Crowism),
one, "University as Enterprise," is focused on finding
outside resources to help the institution promote and improve itself
as an vehicle of innovation. (The other themes are: New Health; New
Teacher/New Learner; the New City; and Better Design/Better
And Mr. Crow is himself looking for other universities willing to join
with Arizona State to form some sort of new consortium tentatively
dubbed "The Enterprise University Alliance," to champion
changes that will help research universities remain both academically
high achieving and representative of a changing society.
"The big publics have got to innovate and step up," says Mr.
Crow. Not every research university needs to rethink itself, he says,
but "it's imperative that some do."
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Arizona State's Tempe campus serves almost
60,000 students. Laura Segall for the Chronicle
PHOTO SIDEBAR: A student skateboards outside the recently
renovated Memorial Union on ASU's Tempe campus. President Michael Crow
has overseen a building boom on this and the university's other
campuses. Laura Segall for the Chronicle
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Students in one of four eSpace
classrooms in Tempe listen to a presentation during an
introduction-to-engineering class at Arizona State U. The academic
restructuring of the university has created two different engineering
schools, one known as the College of Technology & Innovation, in
Mesa. Laura Segall for the Chronicle
PHOTO SIDEBAR: A poster at Arizona State promotes
President Crow's "New American University" plan,
occasionally derided as the "New American University Bubble"
by faculty who wonder if the momentum can be maintained. Laura Segall
for the Chronicle
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244