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The Making of a Higher-Ed Agitator

27 мая 2015 года
Автор: Jack Stripling
Источник: Chronicle of Higher Education, 04/24/15

For Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, this is hallowed ground. It is the site of Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s low-slung winter home in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. The residence’s slanted redwood beams and walls of native stone appear to be natural extensions of the desert landscape.

Mr. Crow, a stocky figure in a blue blazer and an open-necked shirt, strolls toward the prow of the property, where a gravel walkway juts to a tip on the southern side of the residence. From this vantage point, Wright intended his home to resemble a ship on the desert, draped with a canvas roof reminiscent of a sail. The deliberateness of it all, Mr. Crow says, carries the signature of a master designer bending the natural world to his aims.

Mr. Crow, 59, considers himself a designer, too, convinced he has a new, more populist blueprint for universities. With his ideas, he seeks to upend the natural order of academe, in which universities derive prestige from the proportion of students they exclude.

Rather than a university president, Mr. Crow sees himself as a "knowledge enterprise architect." In this role, he has assessed what he believes universities are meant to do and drawn up an organizational structure best suited to meet those goals. If a college aims to produce more graduates and make research breakthroughs, Mr. Crow says, it should be designed so that a policy of near-open access enhances the prospects that professors will cure cancer or build flying cars.

Mr. Crow’s prescription for colleges amounts to a finger in the eye of the higher-education establishment, which has for decades used selectivity as a proxy for greatness. His thesis challenges conventional wisdom, which suggests that the nation’s greatest research accomplishments will come from highly selective institutions with established reputations — not 80,000-student behemoths like Arizona State.

Designing the New American University (Johns Hopkins University Press), which Mr. Crow recently wrote with the historian William B. Dabars, is the most thorough exploration to date of themes the president has espoused since his appointment at Arizona State, in 2002. The book has brought new attention to Mr. Crow’s arguments, which implicitly indict some of his peers.

He does not typically name names but vaguely defines his opposition as a nameless, faceless cohort of colleges that imitate the exclusionary policies of Harvard in the destructive pageantry of rankings. In so doing, he argues, these institutions function as engines of inequality, perpetuating a system in which young people are consigned to lives of fulfillment or struggle well before they take their first standardized tests. In other words, just about every institution but Mr. Crow’s has some major "design" flaw.

His disciples, of which there are many, see Mr. Crow as a thinker on a par with the late Clark Kerr, the University of California president credited with helping to create the modern model for public colleges. But Mr. Crow’s ascendance in higher education, propelled by an uncommon blend of intellectual curiosity and ambition, raises important questions about whether his proposals for the sector can or should be emulated. His success at Arizona State is a product of what even some supporters describe as a top-down style of administration likely to meet resistance elsewhere.

For all of the attention his ideas are paid, skepticism lingers about whether Mr. Crow is a revolutionary or simply an able marketer, casting conventional ideas of interdisciplinarity and scale with the high gloss of a great design thinker.

The first sketches of the New American University were drawn well before anyone knew the designer’s name.

Mr. Crow’s ideas were rooted in a working-class childhood, shaped by a graduate program that connected organizational theory with design, and tested during an unlikely stint as an Ivy League administrator empowered to make big bets that did not always work out.

In August 1973, a Plymouth Belvedere station wagon pulled up to Friley Hall, a dormitory at Iowa State University. As Mr. Crow remembers it, he and his father had made the 350-mile drive from Chicago without exchanging a word. Indeed, they had barely spoken for the past six months.

George E. Crow, a petty officer in the U.S. Navy, had envisioned things differently: His firstborn would attend the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he had been offered a full-ride scholarship that covered room, board, and clothing. Instead, Mr. Crow had come to a state university to throw a javelin on the track team.

The college freshman, who had achieved Eagle Scout status at age 13, pulled from the car a green trunk emblazoned with a Boy Scout symbol. Everything he owned was inside.

By opting against a military life, Mr. Crow was shunning an organizational structure that tended to reinforce distinctions of class and rank. As the son of an enlisted man, he knew his place: the bottom of the pecking order.

Mr. Crow’s mother died while in treatment for cervical cancer when he was 9 years old, after which George Crow designed an unconventional curriculum of moralism and masculinity for his son, one of five children.

One night his father took him to a Chicago morgue, paying an attendant to show the boy the corpse of a man killed in a drunken-driving accident. This is what happens if you screw up, his father told him.

There were journeys down to skid rows, where George Crow paid homeless drunks a few bucks to tell his son how their lives had fallen apart.

And there was the time George Crow tried to cure his son’s nightmares. He slipped into a raccoon coat, donned a ghoul mask, crept into Michael’s room, and awoke his son, hovering over him with the visage of a monster.

"I remember that like it was 10 seconds ago," Mr. Crow said. "I don’t think I had any more nightmares after that."

The backdrop of these lessons was a childhood of constant disruption. Mr. Crow, who was shuffled among relatives after his mother’s death, moved 21 times and attended 17 schools before he went to Iowa State. The experience, he says, instilled in him a skepticism of rigid curricular design. He would sometimes arrive in a class at midyear, cobbling together enough projects to persuade teachers that he merited advancement to the next grade.

Now, decades later, Mr. Crow argues that students are most likely to succeed in self-paced classes tailored to their needs. At Arizona State, he has been a champion of "adaptive learning," a technology-driven form of instruction in which students progress through general-education courses only after demonstrating mastery of key concepts.

After his father dropped him off at Iowa State, Michael Crow began a remarkable trajectory through higher education. He earned a Ph.D. in public administration at Syracuse University and returned to Iowa State as director of the Office of Science Policy and Research under Gordon P. Eaton, the president. When Mr. Eaton left for an administrative post at Columbia University, in 1990, he all but insisted that it also hire Mr. Crow, who had proved adept at procuring grants.

By Mr. Crow’s late 30s, less than a decade after earning his Ph.D., he had become one of the most powerful people at Columbia.

In 2002, professors at Columbia were getting restless.

An administrator named Michael Crow, tenured but hardly known in the School of International and Public Affairs, had become chief architect of the university’s first significant online education venture, known as Fathom. For this project, paid for with money from patent royalties, Mr. Crow seemed to have unlimited discretion. He derived his authority from Columbia administrators, who by this time were impressed with his record of patenting and selling the rights to researchers’ discoveries.

But Mr. Crow was short on answers about how or when Fathom, a for-profit entity, would ever generate revenue.

"It simply looked like an annual drain on the university’s budget going forward with no predictable end in sight," says Richard W. Bulliet, who co-chaired a University Senate committee formed to look into Fathom.

Before Mr. Crow went to Columbia, the central administration did not have tens of millions of dollars at its discretion to take chances on uncertain ventures with little faculty buy-in. But Fathom — like other projects paid for with the Strategic Initiatives Fund — was a clear-cut example of how much things had changed since Mr. Crow’s arrival, in 1991.

The university had reshaped its intellectual-property policies, at his urging, so that more and more revenue from discoveries would flow into the provost’s office, where Mr. Crow worked. Deans scoffed, but Mr. Crow was in a protected class. Through a variety of titles, culminating in executive vice provost, he spoke with the implicit authority of Jonathan R. Cole, the provost, who was widely viewed as heir apparent to the Columbia presidency.

"He was very assertive about what he knew, and I had his back," Mr. Cole says. "And they knew that."

Fathom promised to use the Internet’s vast untapped potential to share the intellect of Columbia’s scholarly community with the rest of the world. It is easy to view the project as an early example of Mr. Crow’s egalitarian ideals in action, "scaling" up the Ivy League experience for the masses.

The concept of Fathom is not much different from the Cheesecake Factory model that Mr. Crow discusses in his new book. The theory, which has been used in relation to health care, argues that scaled-up colleges could mimic the restaurant chain’s efforts to make a "gourmet culinary experience" broadly available at a reasonable price. Fathom was Mr. Crow’s first attempt to cook a more affordable "Glamburger."

If there is a central pillar to the New American University, it is the concept of scale. There is no good reason, Mr. Crow contends, that students at big public universities with relatively low admissions standards cannot have the same enriching experiences as those at small colleges.

Skeptics argue that raising enrollments will inevitably mean that more students get lost in the system, but Mr. Crow is a believer in the power of technology to mitigate those problems. Electronic advising systems, designed to track the progress of tens of thousands of students toward degrees in real time, are just one way in which colleges can mitigate the perceived challenges of scale, he says.

The notion that universities should be designed to reach more people, and thereby maximize societal good, is in keeping with ideas that Mr. Crow started to formulate at Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The beginnings of this line of thinking, his mentors say, can be found in a 1998 paper, "Public Administration as a Design Science," which he wrote with R.F. (Rick) Shangraw Jr., a classmate who is now president and chief executive of Arizona State’s foundation.

One of their central arguments in the paper is that the thinkers in public administration should stop postulating theories and start offering prescriptions for complex organizations. Their responsibility is to design institutions that "convert collective will and public resources into social profit."

But Fathom was not entirely about social profit. It was about financial profit, too. In 2001, Mr. Crow told The Chronicle that the project was poised to exploit an untapped niche market of adult learners with disposable income, allowing Columbia to "use knowledge as a form of venture capital."

Columbia officials were also motivated by fear. The nightmare scenario was that the likes of MIT or Stanford would plant the flag online first. Worse yet, Microsoft or some other tech giant might start poaching professors for a private education venture.

Egged on by Mr. Crow, Columbia went headlong into Fathom without fully recognizing the costs. Not to mention that about half of Fathom’s potential customers still used land lines with their computers, which made accessing the content difficult at best.

By the end of Mr. Crow’s time at Columbia, the university was pulling the plug on Fathom.

"It was a failure because of what we did," says Mr. Cole, who conceded that the venture lacked a clear business plan. "But it was not a failure of concept. It was a phenomenal concept that will get recreated, I guarantee you, in the next 10 years."

This is a common defense of Mr. Crow. Failures are couched as ideas that simply came before their time or died because entrenched academic interests lacked the foresight or the spine to follow through.

Supporters will also say that Fathom and Biosphere 2, an ill-fated living laboratory that Mr. Crow championed, have to be viewed within the context of Columbia’s successes. The university’s Earth Institute, which Mr. Crow helped to dream up and first directed, has earned a reputation as a model for interdisciplinary approaches to complex global problems, such as climate change.

"This might be true of the projects I become involved in: They are reach ideas," Mr. Crow says. "I’m a huge believer in launching many boats, because some boats won’t make it and some will."

The abandonment of Fathom was a "strategic blunder," he insists. If he thinks he bears any responsibility for what went wrong, he describes it in the most theoretical of terms. "I hadn’t broadened the design opportunity to enough individuals in the institution to survive whatever kind of perturbation might come along," he says.

By the time Arizona State started courting Mr. Crow, a changing of the guard was imminent at Columbia. The board made no move to promote Mr. Cole to the presidency, opting instead to make a splash with the appointment of Lee C. Bollinger, president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who had been in the running to lead Harvard.

Mr. Cole was losing his influence in the university’s inner circle. "Mike saw the handwriting on the wall for himself, too," Mr. Cole says.

Mr. Crow characterizes things a bit differently: "I ran the course of my design contributions at Columbia."

After a decade at Columbia, Mr. Crow quickly cast the university as a foil for what he planned to do next.

On November 8, 2002, four months after becoming president of Arizona State, Mr. Crow delivered his inaugural speech in ASU Gammage, an auditorium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

It was there that he described Columbia and its ilk as "the gold standard of the past." Other universities, he said, slavishly mimic these "elitist institutions," fashioning their departments and admissions policies in a futile quest for comparison.

Undergirding the new leader’s speech was a candid acknowledgment: If defined by the old order, Arizona State did not stand a chance. To be influential, it would have to be redesigned and rebranded as an audacious experiment without any peers. That meant new departmental configurations, lumping together disciplines under some common theme, such as "Human Evolution and Social Change." It meant unbridled enrollment growth. It meant teaming up with wealthy private companies that could help expand the university’s reach beyond state borders.

Since Mr. Crow’s arrival, enrollment at Arizona State has risen from 55,000 to 83,000, a 50-percent increase buoyed by an online education program with a fierce national marketing campaign. Half of the university’s students take all or some courses online, according to the most recent federal data.

On the main campus, in Tempe, about one in three undergraduates is eligible for federal Pell Grants, which are designated for low-income students.

Seeking more students who might not otherwise go to college, Mr. Crow recently struck a deal with Starbucks. Under the arrangement, Arizona State will discount online tuition for the company’s employees. In turn, Starbucks will reimburse students for any tuition costs not covered by need-based financial aid.

This week Arizona State announced that it would join edX, a nonprofit online venture founded by Harvard and MIT, in a program called the Global Freshman Academy. Students can enroll for a full year of credit-bearing classes without going through an admissions process, and they pay for only those courses they pass, organizers said.

The arrangement, designed to remove barriers to entry, appears to be a crystallization of Mr. Crow's philosophy. Notably, the program carries the imprimatur of two of the nation's most selective institutions, the likes of which he might have dismissed as yesterday's universities not long ago.

In terms of institutional design — Mr. Crow’s personal passion — Arizona State is experimenting with new departmental configurations, which he says will stimulate interdisciplinary research. Since his arrival, the university has eliminated 74 academic units and created 38.

The first and most expensive such arrangement is the Biodesign Institute, which is housed in a $150-million facility on the Tempe campus. Stuart M. Lindsay, a physics professor who works in the institute, starts to chuckle when he describes how the project came together under Mr. Crow. "Biodesign was Michael’s invention. It was top-down executive action," he says.

Mr. Crow would expect that sort of talk from Mr. Lindsay, a British immigrant whom he describes as a "natural-born cynic of the highest order." But Mr. Lindsay is among the president’s allies, illustrating a curious thing about Mr. Crow: Even his friends on the faculty say he tends to shove his ideas down the throats of professors. The question is whether that matters. To Mr. Lindsay, it does not.

"Great departments are never built on democracy," he says.

With biodesign as an anchor, Arizona State’s research spending has tripled during Mr. Crow’s tenure, totaling more than $367 million in 2013, according to the most recent data available from the National Science Foundation.

Those results have transformed faculty recruitment, Mr. Lindsay says. "We used to say, ‘How far down the applicant list do we go before someone will take an offer?’ Now the institute often gets its top choices, who bring with them publications from major journals and independent funding, he says.

But the top professors, recruited with generous start-up packages, are only part of the story. Among Arizona State’s 2,800 instructional faculty members, 36 percent are ineligible for tenure. This contingent work force helps teach the tens of thousands of new students who have enrolled during Mr. Crow's tenure.

The reliance on adjunct professors, who have limited job security, reflects a national trend. Arizona State introduced new guidelines this winter that would allow the most experienced instructors to secure multiyear contracts, officials said, as opposed to the year-to-year agreements most common in higher education.

But concerns about contingent faculty have been acute at Arizona State, which has seen budget cuts in tandem with its growth spurt. Faculty members in the English department, for example, pushed back in recent months against a proposal that would increase teaching loads to five courses per semester for nontenured composition instructors.

Asked about the concerns, a university spokesman said that instructors carrying heavier teaching loads will have their service obligations "shifted elsewhere."

Mr. Crow's reshuffling of academic disciplines has also been opposed by some professors, who question whether it makes any difference in what faculty members do. The creation of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, for instance, is remembered by some as a particularly messy example of Mr. Crow jamming through one of his big ideas.

"None of the three units forced into the marriage wanted it," says Mark von Hagen, the school’s founding director and now a member of the history faculty. "That didn’t make any difference."

Questions linger about whether Arizona State has really been transformed at all, or merely rebranded itself. Skeptics look no further than Wrigley Hall, home of the School of Sustainability, to make their case. The building’s most noticeable features are six wind turbines, mounted on the roof.

These turbines, which together cost about $45,000, actually provide a negligible amount of energy to the building, university officials concede. Peter Rez, a physics professor, grimaced as he looked up at them on a recent spring morning. He called the turbines mere "ecosymbolism" and said they were a good example of how the president makes an empty show of the university’s inventiveness. "It’s the quote from Macbeth," he said. "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Solar panels, which supply 14 percent of the campus’s electricity needs, are the largest source of sustainable energy at Arizona State, university officials say.

But Mr. Crow has seized a national platform, and in so doing he has accumulated both supporters and opponents beyond the university he leads.

True believers often start conversations by announcing their allegiance, precisely because they know the president can be polarizing. Bridget Burns is one such person.

As a fellow at the American Council on Education, in 2013-14 she spent a year working under Mr. Crow. She chose him because he was invariably described as the most innovative president in higher education. But what she’d heard about him gave her pause: He won’t make time for you. He’s "arrogant."

In her first interview with Mr. Crow, Ms. Burns laid out her trepidations. "You come across like you’ve never experienced a moment of vulnerability in your life," she recalls telling him. "I’m here to find out if you might be crazy."

What followed was a steady conversion to Team Crow. Ms. Burns could barely keep up with him, she says, observing that the president’s life is structured in 15-minute increments that may stretch from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. He eschews caffeine and alcohol, describing his job as an extended act of "energy preservation," she says.

"Ideas are his energy source," Ms. Burns says.

The ideas come from untraditional places. One night during Ms. Burns’s fellowship, Mr. Crow took in a midnight showing of Elysium, a science-fiction film that imagines a future in which the planet’s wealthiest inhabitants live on a utopian space station while the rest of humanity toils back on Earth. The president was so enthralled by what he saw that he insisted Ms. Burns check it out for herself.

"Don’t watch the movie for the story," she remembers him saying. "Watch it for the technology. I want you to think about the technology needs of the future and call me back."

Ms. Burns now is executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of 11 institutions that Mr. Crow helped to organize under the shared goal of graduating more students at lower costs.

His national ambitions distinguish him from many of his peers, who spend most of their energy consumed with the needs of the institutions they lead. That broader focus has invited comparisons to higher-education leaders of the past, most notably Mr. Kerr, architect of California’s master plan.

Christopher Newfield, an English professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says the comparison with Mr. Kerr goes only so far. Unlike the California leader, who galvanized public support for his vision, Mr. Crow has not fully acknowledged the necessary role that state aid must play if public higher education is to expand its reach and maintain quality, Mr. Newfield says.

Rather than grapple much with those thorny issues, Mr. Crow euphemistically describes his consolidation and elimination of programs as a "design" strategy, the professor says.

"He overemphasizes design as a nicer way of talking about efficiencies," Mr. Newfield said in a recent interview. "His whole generation of university leaders has really undersold the need for continuous large-scale public investment in these mass-scale institutions."

Mr. Newfield reviews Designing the New American University in the Los Angeles Review of Books, arguing that the design solutions Mr. Crow proposes would create the same costly and bloated "all things to all people" institutions that saddle students with debt today. The book, he writes, "doesn’t offer a novel public university structure as much as it revives the grand mission of the postwar public university in all its primordial ambition."

In his book, Mr. Crow condemns elite colleges for being "aloof from society, and inaccessible to the majority of Americans." His children, as it happens, have attended colleges decidedly unlike the large-scale, affordable research institutions he says the nation needs. Mr. Crow’s daughter earned a bachelor’s degree at Bard College, and his son went to Bowdoin College. Each institution has fewer than 3,000 students and a sticker price approaching $50,000 a year.

Mr. Crow says he sees no inconsistency between his public positions and his family’s personal choices. He told his children they could attend any college, so long as they agreed to major in two unrelated subjects — a nod toward the value that he places on interdisciplinary thinking.

"It turns out that’s where they wanted to go," he says, "and I happen to have the resources."

Mr. Crow's total compensation was nearly $675,000 in 2012-13, well above median presidential pay of about $480,000 for public college presidents, The Chronicle's most recent analysis found. Thirty presidents earned more than Mr. Crow that year.

The reach of Mr. Crow’s influence hinges in some ways on whether the bully pulpit will be sufficient to effect change beyond his one institution. The recent edX deal suggests a desire to work directly with other universities on a worldwide scale, and Mr. Crow's tutelage of rising higher education leaders may be felt in years to come.

In the past two years, two women who consider Mr. Crow a mentor have been named college presidents. Laurie A. Leshin, who developed Arizona State’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, is president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Mariko Silver, a former senior adviser to Mr. Crow, leads Bennington College.

Ms. Leshin describes Mr. Crow as "the voice in my head," one that conveys two complementary but seemingly contradictory messages. On one hand, the voice of Michael Crow pushes protégés to take big risks and to rethink everything that has come before. On the other hand is the reminder that big bets are not without cost.

"Resources are scarce," Ms. Leshin says. "And we don’t have infinite resources to fail if we’re not going to fail smart."

Whether or not one agrees with Mr. Crow, she says, he has become impossible to ignore. "When he arrived, ASU was not a leader in higher education. And now almost everyone would say it is."

Mr. Crow is the type of executive who seems to believe that criticism of his decisions only proves that he is on the right path. The attacks mean that people are listening.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the president notes, had his detractors, too. So does I.M. Pei. So does Frank Gehry.

"That’s been true," Mr. Crow says, "of every revolution that’s ever occurred."


How Arizona State Has Changed Under Michael Crow:

Since Michael M. Crow became president of Arizona State University, in 2002, he has sought to reorient the public research institution as the “New American University” that he believes is the future of higher education. Universities, he says, should be designed to reach more people and maximize societal good. Here are the key ways Arizona State has changed during Mr. Crow’s time in office:

Enrollment has grown by 50 percent. More than 83,000 students are now enrolled, according to Arizona State, up from 55,000 in 2002. The increase has been buoyed by an online education program with an aggressive national marketing campaign. Research spending has tripled. The total in 2013 was more than $367 million, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

Academic departments have been reconfigured. Disciplines have been lumped together under common themes, such as “Human Evolution and Social Change.” Since Mr. Crow’s arrival, the university has eliminated 74 academic units and created 38.

The university struck a deal with Starbucks. As part of its efforts to seek more students who might not otherwise go to college, Arizona State will discount online tuition for the company’s employees. In turn, Starbucks will reimburse students for any tuition costs not covered by need-based financial aid.

Retention rates have improved. First-to-second-year retention rates reached 84 percent in 2013. That is a seven-point increase since 2006, when the university introduced eAdvisor, which tracks students’ progress toward degrees.

Arizona State just teamed up with the MOOC provider edX. The result, Global Freshman Academy, will offer a set of online courses to fulfill the general-education requirements of a freshman year at the university for less than what students typically pay.

Michael Crow's Influence List

Arizona State’s president says his ideas for higher education are drawn from philosophers, designers, and scientists, including these:

Rachel L. Carson (1907-1964). Conservationist whose book Silent Spring is acknowledged as a catalyst for the environmental movement.

John Dewey (1859-1952). Philosopher associated with pragmatism, who challenged traditional models of education by promoting active learning over rote memorization.

Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996). Physicist and historian best known for his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argued that scientific thought is shaped by periodic paradigm shifts.

José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). Spanish philosopher who wrote about the dynamics of social change and the mission of universities.

Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001). Social scientist and Nobel laureate known for his pioneering work in economics, decision-making theory, and artificial intelligence.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Rebellious and influential architect, known for organic designs that blend with the natural world.

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