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 that significant.
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 community.
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 handling growth."
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 desert-garden feel.
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 inviting experience.
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 José 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 distribution."
"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 Community College.
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 peers.
ASU has also made pedagogical changes on a large scale, particularly in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
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 math department.)
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 "world-changing ideas."
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 ASU.
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 success today.
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 Decisions.)
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 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org