‘This guy sounds different’
In fall 2001, Don Ulrich flew to New York City to meet Michael Crow. Ulrich, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents and chairman of the search committee to find a new ASU president, had already interviewed five sitting university presidents and three provosts. He was not happy. “You’re giving me the same old, same old,” he told the headhunters. The way he saw it, “they were maintenance people. They weren’t going to change anything. That was not what this place needed.”
Then, ASU President Lattie Coor told Ulrich he had a guy he should meet, a guy at Columbia University who was neither a president nor a provost.
Ulrich met Crow at 8 a.m. over breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton near Central Park. He had a plane to Atlanta after the meeting.
“I sat down and we just started talking. I thought, ‘This guy sounds different.’ So I listened more closely.” Ulrich was impressed. “He has ideas. He has a track record that’s pretty damn different. His delivery was unbelievable. I couldn’t ask him a question that he didn’t have an answer to.”
Ulrich, a quick study with a background in corporate reorganizations, would later describe Crow as a creative thinker, a man with an iron will and fearless. They ended up talking for 3 ½ hours and Ulrich missed his plane.
The coming months would be the first time many members of the search committee met Crow, Columbia’s executive vice provost, who was also founding director of its Earth Institute; founder of its Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes; and chief strategist for its research enterprise. But he had visited Arizona frequently over the previous decade as an ASU consultant to help design a new research agenda and identify opportunities. He had formed a picture of what could change and the prospects for redesign at such a young university and open culture like Arizona. As he puts it today, “The soil was conducive to a new idea.”
While he was not already using the phrase “New American University,” he was thinking deeply and reading widely about what kind of public university was needed in America. His reading list then — he typically reads many books simultaneously — was a window into his evolving vision. [See “A reading list for rethinking education” at the end of this story.]
When Crow met with members of the search committee, he explained his view that the status quo in higher education was outdated and that innovation was needed “across everything: the structure of the university, the design of the university, the financial mechanisms for funding the university.” He shared his experience as a lead architect of what he called knowledge enterprises, designing “dozens and dozens” of research centers and research networks — at Columbia, at his alma mater Iowa State University and around the world.
What Crow had not done, what he wanted to do, was “architect the whole thing.” He also was clear about what he did not want to do: “I told them I didn’t want to manage anything. I don’t want to run anything. I have no interest in being an administrator of anything. If you want some hospital administrator or some academic administrator, there’s thousands of them out there. You should go get one. That’s not me.” The search committee took notice.
What struck him first, recalls José Cárdenas, a search committee member and now ASU general counsel, was Crow’s attitude: brash, aggressive, intense, someone who created excitement. Asked how he’d feel about a president’s duty to beg for money, Crow offered a less than politic answer, “I don’t beg,” he said, then proceeded to detail his system for making a case with donors. Then he repeated, “I don’t beg.” It was the kind of moment that galvanized the room, Cárdenas says, and it clarified his own assessment. “If we hire this guy, he’ll either be a spectacular success or a spectacular failure. Either way, we’ll be in for a hell of a ride.”
"Well, you guys can wish all you want. Why don’t we just do it?"
To be sure, much of Crow’s passion and urgency was fueled by years of experience with education leaders who longed for change but felt hamstrung from taking action: “For decades, people said, ‘We wish we had universities that were more connected to the people … more responsive … had research with greater impact for social outcomes … that weren’t becoming so elitist.’” His response: “‘Well, you guys can wish all you want. Why don’t we just do it?’ No other institution had had the opportunity to step back and look at every aspect of its entire design and redo that. Why don’t we do it?”
Soon he would have his chance, something he had dreamed about since he was a boy.
A young man fueled by ideas
In 1968, when he was 13, Crow watched his family’s brand-new color TV as astronauts from Apollo 8 circled the moon. He was gripped by the idea that these people took off in a rocket and flew to the moon. It led him to think that you can do anything if your mind is ready, if you work hard enough.
Earlier that day he had visited a family who lived in a shack with a tarpaper roof and a dirt floor. It seemed so unfair, so clear that something must be done. That picture, those dual thoughts, stuck with him. Fueled him.
By the time the 17-year-old was off to Iowa State, the first in his family to go to college, he had moved 21 times. His father was an enlisted Navy man and his mother passed away when he was only 9. He had learned how to manage this peripatetic lifestyle, including periods in Maryland, Kentucky, Florida, Illinois and California. One constant was the public library. Another was his thirst for knowledge and the growing awareness that, even in tough circumstances, it’s possible to advance.
When he arrived in Ames, Iowa, after a six-hour drive from Chicago with his dad, he had less than $10 in his pocket; he had cobbled together a handful of scholarships to cover all four years of college and his expenses. He wanted to do five majors but had to settle for two: political science and environmental science. And he continued to percolate on his notion that it’s possible to predict, design and control the future — and that higher education is the way to get the tools necessary to design what doesn’t yet exist. This included structures, systems and organizations.
Crow took as many classes and independent studies as he could. He was hungry to engage and synthesize multiple ways of thinking, not just for knowledge’s own sake, but to solve problems. And he wanted to apply his learning to drive change and make something new.
While still a junior, he was designing and building his own grant-funded engineering project, a way to increase food production, and landed a job designing energy-related projects at Ames National Laboratory right after graduation.
It wasn’t long before he was envisioning universities that work across disciplines and create opportunity for as many students as possible.
Altering a culture and reorganizing a university
In November 2002, four months after his July start, ASU’s new president delivered an inaugural address introducing his concept for the university’s future. Following hundreds of hours of meeting and thinking, Crow considered it a design proposal that sought to move away from the model of increasingly elitist private universities that were failing to address huge social inequity.
“The New American University will cultivate excellence in teaching, research and public service,” he stated. It would “embrace the educational needs of the entire population” and “be measured not by whom the university excludes, but rather by whom the university includes, and from this inclusion will come its contribution to the advancement of society.”
ASU, he asserted, “is uniquely poised to become such an institution.”
"I love to have my idea replaced by somebody else’s idea."
But getting to that promised place required disruption of the status quo. He expected criticism and got a bellyful. Who was he to come in and redesign the joint? How could he ever pull this off? Besides, the president’s job is to run the trains on time. He heard it from faculty. He heard it from staff and other administrators. That was OK by him.
“I love debate. I love argument,” he says. “I love to have my idea replaced by somebody else’s idea. Not everybody thinks that way, and people might not have realized that’s the way I am.”
Plenty saw his confidence, his intense drive, as self-serving ego. But he could live with that, too, on the path to pursuing the goal.
“Basically, I began, just grinding this out,” he says. “I’m just a fullback. Give me the ball. I’ll gain three yards, two yards, four yards, two yards. Throw me a pass every once in a while. Just grind it out, grind it out, grind it out. Day after day after day. And then, people began to see we were making progress. We were doing new things.”
New things, indeed, motivated by the desire to do things better and increase impact, not just replicate what had already been done. Rebuild and redesign departments, for example, to empower faculty, encourage transdisciplinary thinking and research, spur new insights, attract more students and produce different outcomes.
One design team report from 2004 described accelerating and institutionalizing “intellectual fusion,” to “break out from the confines of traditional academic organization” and become more fluid.
“This was not simply advancing a strategy,” Crow says. “We were attempting to alter a culture, and I hope that the faculty here feel like they can advance any idea.”
Still, there were skeptics aplenty. One faculty member asked if Crow was “making this stuff all up.” Crow’s response was to have his team assemble two 6-inch-ring binders filled with intellectual arguments for new academic designs and what they could yield.
The biology department became part of the School of Life Sciences. Geology, astronomy and other sciences evolved into the School of Earth and Space Exploration.
The School of Sustainability — bringing together experts in environmental science and renewable energy, business and policy and designed around an outcome much like a medical school aims for a long, healthy life — was the first of its kind in the country.
Traditional engineering programs — such as civil, mechanical and industrial — were reorganized around Grand Challenges. This was inspired by Chuck Vest, the president of MIT and then president of the National Academy of Engineering, who was advocating creative ways to attract more young people to engineering. “We took a year of arguing to work our way through that,” Crow notes. Today the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering serve double the number and a far more diverse population of more than 20,000 engineering students.
And there was more: The push to create one university, for example — one faculty, one accreditation, aligning the campuses to do away with the hierarchy of a main campus and branch campuses — led to a single university administration and a growing commitment to online education that equally values students from any location.
Such moves earned Crow new supporters, but it also intensified resistance from some academic traditionalists and doubters who worried about the pace and scale of change. One professor, unhappy with the redesign of his department, publicly called Crow “a thug in a suit.” Less thick-skinned than he might seem, Crow did his best to take it in stride. “There’s been no project that hasn’t been difficult,” he says without rancor. “But I knew this stuff was going to work once we found enough people who could be empowered by design. I mean, there’s a lot of really smart people here and a lot of really smart people that could be here.”
Consider the case of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Before Chris Callahan became its dean in 2005, it was housed within the School of Social Programs on the Tempe campus. Crow wanted to make it a stand-alone school and move it to downtown Phoenix as part of an emerging collection of schools and students in the city’s urban core.
Although some faculty and deans thought it was an awful idea, that it represented exile from the Tempe campus and could lead to its early demise, Callahan was excited by the opportunities it would create for journalism students to engage more closely with the nation’s fifth-largest city. That same thinking influenced the decision to move the law school, nursing school, social work and public affairs and others that would thrive by becoming more embedded in the community.
"We knew that we could make these new ideas work."
“You can walk outside and cover things that look like the rest of America,” says Callahan. Rather than resist the move, he found it “intoxicating,” a rare opportunity to design something new. “How often do you get to do that?”
Jazzed by the creative mindset, Callahan has introduced all kinds of innovations, including modeling the journalism school on the teaching-hospital concept that allows students to practice the profession virtually from day one.
Crow cites 2011, nearly a decade after he arrived, as the point when ASU had turned a corner following the economic downturn and a series of reorganizations.
“I think by 2011 we knew we had cleared,” he says. “We knew that we could make these new ideas work … implement these new technologies … lower our costs … continue to find resources and partners … successfully reengineer the way the university worked.” In short: “The sky did not fall.”
No slowing down
Far from it. ASU is well ahead of the 2020 timetable to grow to 100,000 students, thanks largely to nearly 30,000 online degree-seeking students. It continues to expand the population of first-generation college students and achieve high national rankings for its myriad programs, including 18 transdisciplinary schools.
In 15 years, research expenditures have grown from $110 million to more than $500 million, placing ASU in the top 10 of the National Science Foundation’s rankings of institutions without a medical school. (The goal is to reach $700 million by 2020.)
Perhaps no ranking has provided more reason for self-congratulation than topping the U.S. News & World Report list as the nation’s most innovative university. Crow acknowledges its value, seeing it as part of an American story of advancement.
“I hear a lot of students, a lot of people, talking about it. They see us as this creative, innovative place. America’s always been seen as an innovative place, where there are inventors, dreamers, people doing things in these new ways,” he says. “To be a part of that within this sector is fantastic. That’s the American way.”
But Crow is not about to sit back and rest on laurels. Or slow the velocity that has gotten ASU this far.
“I’m not interested in finding equilibrium,” he says. “Most universities sit in equilibrium. I think that equilibrium doesn’t allow you to be adaptive. It doesn’t allow you to scale.”
And what’s true for ASU remains true for ASU’s president. Fifteen years on, the last thing he’s looking for is a slower pace. When Crow was still at Columbia, recalls Francis, he would pull all-nighters now and then to get things done. After moving to the desert, he told his wife that he would not keep doing that. “People ask, ‘Does he ever slow down?’” She laughs. “This is slow.”
Bonus content: A reading list for rethinking education
During the time Michael Crow was meeting with the search committee at ASU and rethinking the idea of an American university, his reading list included the following:
• Frank Rhodes’ “The Creation of the Future: The Role of the American University,” which describes universities as “the most significant creation of the second millennium” and “the decisive catalyst in modern society.”
• Herbert Simon’s “The Sciences of the Artificial,” a classic work on artificial intelligence.
• Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” a book on the history of science whose publication was a landmark event in scientific communities.
• Two works by William Manchester. One, “The Glory and the Dream,” narrates four decades of American history and the workings of democracy starting in 1932. The other, “A World Only Lit by Fire,” casts back much farther to the Dark Ages and the extraordinary role of universities and education to escape that time of squalor, illiteracy, mindlessness and violence.
This story originally appeared in the ASU Thrive magazine; find more at magazine.asu.edu. Top photo: ASU President Michael M. Crow with freshman Medallion Scholar Trey Leveque. Photo by Jeff Newton