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Topic: Change Takes Root in the Desert
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Change Takes Root in the Desert
Posted: Nov 27, 2012 1:16 PM
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From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday,
November 23, 2012. See
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

Tempe, Ariz.

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

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

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

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

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.

Teaching Innovation

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

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

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

"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

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