10th Anniversary Interview Series: Arizona State University President Michael Crow


California Competes research found that one in five Californians intend to enroll in higher education in the next two years. How can the state scale up institutional capacity to meet the demand? For California Competes 10th anniversary interview series, Dr. Jez sits down with Arizona State University’s 16th President Michael Crow, who has been credited with driving a national conversation on how institutions can serve larger numbers of students, to discuss his perspectives and upcoming initiatives in higher education.

His concept of the New American University, a design which is inclusive in admissions and holds societal impact as a measure of its success, aims to better serve larger numbers of students through online education, employer partnerships, and more. It’s the institutions that need to grow and adapt and meet the needs of potential students, not vice versa. As evident in ASU’s rapid infrastructure expansion, President Crow has used his position to create and refine a model for doing just that.

The conversation focused on managing change, employer engagement, and innovative initiatives underway for scaling capacity in higher education. Continue reading to read highlights of their discussion.


Dr. Jez: Sparking meaningful change– especially from the inside– is incredibly challenging. How have you managed change at ASU?

President Crow: The most important thing has been to revisit why we exist –our social responsibility. So, we came up with the model of what the new American universities would need to be if we were really going to achieve egalitarian access, if we were going to break down a lot of the barriers of the past, and if we were going to find a way for people to be connected to a scholarly and research grade faculty from every community. We really approached it as a transformation of our culture. So we [created] a culture change with the empowerment of our faculty as academic and intellectual designers and the empowerment of the university to be of service to the community. We really worked on all of those things and set it up as the way that we approach it. We didn’t approach it in a strategic plan change or an organizational change, but in a deep-seated cultural purpose approach.

Dr. Jez: When you talk about the new wave and the new American university, you talk about serving many more students and many non-traditional students such as students of color, student parents, immigrants, and adult learners. How have you navigated that in the university that has traditionally served students just out of high school and in a very different model. How do you balance that with people who are resistant and say increasing access could have an impact on quality?

President Crow: On this issue of increasing access, we have said we’re a very, very privileged part of our society. We have massive resources, massive libraries, massive buildings, technology, and really smart people that we brought to the university. Surely, we can educate two or three more people per student on campus. Can’t we figure out a way to do that? Could we educate four times as many with the same faculty? Using innovation, technology, creativity, and the drive of our faculty, we’ve been able to make that happen.

To this question of how do you maintain quality, it’s actually just the opposite. It really has turned out that our innovative faculty –driven by pedagogical, technological, and design innovations– have become even more powerful. I now think of them as super faculty. They’re not the regular sort of narrowly focused faculty member. They’re super faculty–they have students on campus, students online, research projects, community projects, community engagement. They’re reaching out to [individuals] that are not even college students, helping people go to college, and using technology as their sort of force multiplier. That’s really what we figured out how to do.

Dr. Jez: One of the things that people talk a lot about ASU is the partnership with Starbucks. Can you talk about how you connect with employers? Where did that come from, and why did you feel like that was an important thing to do?

President Crow: Well, Howard Schultz, the former CEO and founder of Starbucks and I were a part of a national initiative to think about the way to move forward the workforce development of the United States. We both came to the conclusion that companies and universities were archaic institutions that needed modernization around the central focus of the worker.

How can we build human capital across all populations, all groups, all family backgrounds? If you have a job, you, maybe, didn’t go to college. If you worked at Starbucks, maybe you didn’t finish college. Well, let’s have you go to college. Have you finished college? Let’s incentivize you by saying that you can do that without incurring any debt or any costs. So we have 18,000 students in our college achievement program. We’ve graduated 7,000 students in the last few years in that program. We’re accelerating that program forward. It’s a way for a person to finish college, and it’s a way for a person to go to college.

More than half the people that started college in the United States, since 1980, have never finished. More than half of the people that have taken a Pell grant have never finished. So, if you look at communities around the country, particularly middle-class working class, working poor, and poor communities– including the broad ethnicities that exist within those socioeconomic groupings, they’ve not done well in college, and college has not been adaptable to them. So, this Starbucks program is a way in which we’re being adaptable to people who need to work, people who didn’t finish college, and so forth. It’s a part of what we do.

Dr. Jez: That’s great. Some of our research at California Competes found that there are over 4 million people that have some college and no degree in California, 6.8 million with out of college degree with a high school diploma and 5.1 million who intended to enroll in college in the next two years. So thinking about how we create better pathways, make it more affordable is something that we think about a lot in California.

President Crow: Well, those 14 million people that you just mentioned, there is no easy pathway for them because there’s no capacity built at that scale. So college can’t be a place of just a few campsites where a university or a college is set up. It’s gotta be basically accessible at home, accessible at work, accessible for a 17 or an 18 year old on campus, and accessible in your community, and that’s just not the way that it’s designed.

Dr. Jez: Thinking about the relationship with Starbucks which is a high profile example, how can higher education leaders and business leaders think about building those partnerships? How does that become some of the fabric of how universities work?

President Crow: One of the places universities get off track is that they believe that their measurement of success is their competition against other universities. How many students did we not admit that applied? How much money did we get for research versus somebody else? Those are certainly indicators of something, but they can’t be the indicators of the success of a public college or university. We need indicators of success that are tied to the community indicators of success. So, have we changed workforce dynamics? Have we changed employability? Have we changed family outcomes? Have we changed K-12 outcomes by producing better teachers, better principals, better superintendents, better tools, and better analytics?

We’re done all of those things and so we’re aware of them but we don’t use those things to indicate whether or not we’ve made progress. What we need are indicators of social level success. We’ve designed our institution at ASU to be measured against the social outcomes that we’re attempting to influence.

Dr. Jez: So when you retire and look back, what do you feel like you’d be really proud of? What’s that indicator?

President Crow: For me, it’s a deeply rooted culture change, which has a faculty deeply committed to the community and who are using innovation to impact everyone. Another part of that would mean that all these fake bugaboos that we have, like math and science that keep students from moving on in their lives, are all gone. The English language is conceptually and algorithmically more complicated than learning chemistry or math, but we’ve made chemistry and math so complicated that most people can’t learn them. Well, that’s our fault. So, what would make me really happy is a culture that takes responsibility for the community and a university that’s embedded in the community and deeply committed to all the communities within the community itself and makes all of that work. If we could make that much culture change and then give them the tools to work, then I would be a happy camper.

Dr. Jez: That’s a big idea. Can you talk about what that means? What does that look like? What is the math and sciences of the future?

President Crow: That’s like one of the biggest things that we’re working on. So we have now built an entire undergraduate biology degree where every course has built-in adaptive learning tutoring between the entire undergraduate curriculum. We’re working with a California company called Dreamscape Immersive down in Los Angeles, where we’re looking at a full virtual reality immersion into a science lab that’s an alien zoo that equalizes all educational experiences. So, any kid walking in has no advantage over any other kid and then it turns out that you can master biology. We’ve gotten this far enough down the road that we can master biology. In math, we’ve built the same sorts of tools. We have a massive philanthropy working with us in math because we realized that math and science is this bugaboo that has kept so many people from doing what they wanted to do and kept so many people out of college. We’re putting immense energy into this. It’s one of our main areas of innovation.

Dr. Jez: I would be remiss not to go back to you mentioning a virtual reality alien zoo. That may not be a thing that most people are familiar with.

President Crow: So Steven Spielberg and Walter Parks created this conceptual thing that rather than watching a zoo or a movie, you’re in it through virtual reality. So, you’re in a spaceship that has thousands of species from all over the galaxy. You get to experience being in this alien zoo, and then we’ve now built a way in which you go into this alien zoo now as a student. So if you and I were there, you’d be an avatar, whatever you wanted to look like, and same with me. We go in as avatars. We can go in with other students, and we’re in a pod and we’re flying around. We can see each other, talk to each other, interact with each other, and then we are given a series of problems to solve in our encounterings of these species. Long story short, by the time you’re done, you’ve completed first year biology for college and everything you need to know from biology from high school –no books, just this experience, and the learning tools that we built.

Here’s what we found so far in our early testing: 27% average increase. So F students became C students, C students became A students, A students became masters. So for us, we’re so excited about this. We’re releasing the first full immersive learning experience in January of 2022 and the full semester course in August of 2022.

Dr. Jez: The employer partnerships for employees are great. How do you work with employers around work-based learning or for students that enroll outside these employer programs?

President Crow: So we restructured the university around three enterprises– our academic enterprise, which are traditional degree programs in 400 subjects; the knowledge enterprise, which is the structure of the university to focus on important things like global climate change and sustainability; and then we’ve also just launched a thing called learning enterprise, which is under the leadership of Maria Angiano.

Maria is our executive vice-president for learning enterprise. Her assignment is to take everything that we have, everything that we own, every course, every subcourse, every element of our library, disaggregate all of it, and make it available to any learner anywhere, any age, any point in their life. Spice that up with everything else that we can find from any other place like software courses and design courses from others outside the university, and then make all of that available across a person’s life. We call them universal learner courses (ULCs). We realized that we’ve been too selfish. We’ve held all our stuff in, we haven’t disaggregated it enough. It doesn’t mean that others aren’t doing some of this–they are– but this is something that we’re really focusing on.

Dr. Jez: How do employers connect to that or do they?

President Crow: They can. They can connect by coming to us with universal learner courses outcomes. They can come to us and say they want certain things. They can come to us with a desire for micro credentialing, micro masters, micro bachelor’s, certificates, merit badges, and all these things. Employers can connect to us in all of those ways or as individuals, either way.

Dr. Jez: In California, we are having increasingly ambitious conversations around the role of higher education in the state,and we’ve had some really ambitious programs launched with our budget surplus this year. If you were based in California, leading an institution here, or some other role focused on higher education, what would be the issues that you think California should be tackling right now?

President Crow: We are partly based in California. We just opened a fabulous new facility in downtown Los Angeles in the old Herald Examiner building. We have about 30,000 total students from California, both in Arizona and online. We’re adding thousands of students in downtown Los Angeles in a number of programs.

California– with 40 million people, growing rapidly, unbelievably diverse, and leading edge of the economy–is also at the same time, socially, so complicated that it has very dramatic unevenness throughout the state. To me, California begs the question of innovation. How do we increase and accelerate the rate of innovation of all institutions of higher education in California so that they can take on three times the learners or graduate four times the folks that are there that they’re not graduating. So it’s enhancing productivity and success of the students, taking on more learners, and expanding capacity and making these things happen. There’s no way one’s going to build a hundred new universities in California to do that. You’ve got to take on innovation.

Dr. Jez: You mentioned that you have a campus in LA. I think this is the first time that California has had another state university open a campus here. Can you talk about what led you to do that?

President Crow: So Los Angeles is a global city of California which is a little mini sun. Arizona is in the orbit of that global city and that sun. It’s one economy. It’s a regional economy. It’s a regional culture. We’re regionally codependent environmentally. We have the same water issues and the same complicated issues of the west. We’ve got labor movement back and forth, economic movement back and forth. The notion that there’s a gap or a divide is a silly way to look at things. So, we’re engaging in the economy and the region that’s most important for the success of the region itself, including California and Arizona.

Dr. Jez: Got it. Well, thank you so much for having this conversation and for really tackling big, big issues in higher education, not just ASU, but the US as a whole. Thank you so much for tuning in and listening to this conversation.

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