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Ambitious Agenda
Michael Crow has brought an entrepreneurial spirit to Arizona State University

By Kathy Witkowsky
Tempe, Arizona

Last October, on the sort of pleasant evening that helps explain the Phoenix area's phenomenal growth, Arizona State University President Michael Crow led a procession of university boosters carrying flickering candles and high hopes up "A Mountain," on the edge of campus. The event was part of homecoming weekend, and when the crowd amassed in front of the oversized stone and concrete A for which the mountain is named, Crow obligingly talked a little trash about the University of California, Berkeley, whose football team the ASU Sun Devils were to face (and ultimately suffer a crushing loss to) the next day.

(Photo By Peter Ensenberger, Black Star, For CrossTalk)   
Arizona State President Michael Crow expects the $500 million Biodesign Institute, rising behind him, to generate new research in the life sciences.

Crow spent many a Friday night playing nose tackle for his high school team in Gurnee, Illinois, so he is no stranger to football. But it was strategy board games that consumed the rest of his weekends, games he found so engaging that he and his opponent often played straight through until Monday morning, without bothering to sleep.

Now the 48-year-old Crow has brought that same intensity and drive to ASU, where, as president for the past year and a half, he has focused his formidable strategic skills on creating what he calls "A New American University"-a research institution not separate and distinct from its community, on the traditional European model, but one that is firmly embedded in it: not only physically, but socially, culturally and economically.

So, as he gazed out upon ASU's main Tempe campus and the carpet of lights that spread into the Valley of the Sun beyond, Crow was thinking about a lot more than the upcoming contest at Sun Devil Stadium. He was thinking about his own bold game plan.

"I don't look just at the campus-that's too narrow," said Crow, as he took in the enormity of the sprawl from his vantage point on A Mountain. "I look at the whole valley and think about how we can impact everything."

To Crow, the fact that metro Phoenix is growing at the fantastic rate of 100,000 or more new residents each year and is projected to be home to some 8 million people within 30 years isn't a daunting liability. It is a compelling asset. So, too, is the fact that ASU itself didn't become a full-fledged university until 1958.

"It's a brand new city with a brand new university on a huge scale," said Crow, who came to ASU from Columbia University, where he was executive vice provost. That might seem like a poor trade, but not to Crow. It's true that Columbia, Harvard and a dozen other prestigious institutions have become the model, the "gold standard" by which other American research universities measure themselves, he said. But, he added, "They are insufficient to alter the trajectory of the world." And that is exactly what Michael Crow wants to do, beginning with Phoenix.

The economy. The environment. Housing. Health care. Technology. Education at all levels. You name it, and Crow intends to have ASU involved. "The university is a critical catalytic force for the evolution of a successfully evolving creative city," Crow said. "If you build a university disconnected from the community, both will fail to achieve greatness."

And Crow doesn't want to settle for anything less.

His ambitious approach starts by embracing the massive influx of population flooding the area, building programs at three satellite campuses-including a new downtown Phoenix campus-to increase total enrollment from 57,500 to about 95,000 by 2020.

Simultaneously, he plans to improve the school's lackluster academic reputation by strengthening and creating selective high-quality programs, such as its honors college, within the larger university setting. He also intends to more than double annual research expenditures, from $150 million to between $300 and $400 million, generating more overhead dollars for the university as a whole while targeting issues that affect the region, such as health care and environmental sustainability. Much of that research will take place at Crow's brainchild, the Arizona Biodesign Institute, a $500 million interdisciplinary enterprise focused on the life sciences, which is already under construction and which Crow believes has the potential to spawn a whole new industry in Arizona.

In short, Crow declared, ASU "is not going to be a place. It's going to be a force." And if ASU hasn't yet earned that moniker, Michael Crow certainly has.

Almost invariably, Crow is described by those who work with him in terms associated with awesome natural phenomena. Hurricane Crow. Energy in human form. A whirlwind. It is not just his energy and the furious pace at which he works that impresses people; it is also his keen intellect, and his commitment to building an entrepreneurial university that truly serves its community.

"He's what we need more of in higher education," said David Longanecker, executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Longanecker met Crow in the summer of 2002, shortly after Crow had taken office. "I was expecting an uppity guy from New York who didn't know much," said Longanecker. Instead, he said, he was bowled over by Crow's charisma, vision and strategic thinking.

"I think he will reshape ASU into this new image of a great American urban university," Longanecker predicted. What's more, he said, "I think there's a very good chance that it will be a new model-a model that others will follow."

Crow may have spent 11 years at Columbia, but he is as multi-faceted and anti-elitist as the university he seeks to create. His mother died when he was nine, and he and his four siblings were raised by their father, who was a crewman on Navy airplanes, and by an assortment of relatives. They moved constantly, all across the country, and Crow attended some 17 schools before he graduated from high school and enrolled at Iowa State University. There, he majored in political science and environmental studies but dabbled in science and engineering and lettered in track and field.

Crow went on to earn his Ph.D. in public administration with an emphasis on science and technology policy from Syracuse University, but unlike many academics, he is an unapologetic consumer of popular culture, including television. He is also an avid outdoorsman, who has led backpack trips in Montana, has done some orienteering in the mountains of New York state, and still tries to mountain bike at least once a week. This past fall, he hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim.

Crow believes that schools like ASU have a moral imperative to improve the world. ASU is "a knowledge factory," but producing knowledge for its own sake isn't good enough, said Crow, adding that he once directed a project whose title, roughly translated, was, "Why Does Science Always Screw Poor People?"

He encourages his administration and faculty to work together across disciplines to transform both themselves and their communities. "We better get to work because our job is to attack these problems. Not just study them-attack them," Crow told a roomful of faculty at the kickoff workshop for ASU's new Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family. This is one of half a dozen interdisciplinary centers founded on Crow's watch that are largely focused on addressing regional needs.

Crow's innovative yet practical approach to his job is one of the reasons why the Arizona Board of Regents is so delighted with him.

"Michael Crow has brought an entrepreneurial spirit to Arizona State University, and at the same time he has energized the entire Phoenix community around ASU and its future," said Chris Herstam, president of the Arizona Board of Regents. "His energy, his intelligence and his ability to articulate a vision for ASU and the state of Arizona has been remarkable."

Crow took over as ASU president in July 2002. He replaced the much-beloved and highly respected Lattie Coor, who retired after what is widely acknowledged to be a successful 12-year tenure at ASU. Still, said regents president Herstam, "We were facing enormous obstacles."

The three state universities-ASU, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University-were at capacity-straining enrollments and were facing state budget cuts and private competition. Talented faculty members were leaving, and infrastructure was crumbling. "Business as usual would not suffice," Herstam said.

Crow had not been included on the original list of presidential candidates, but his name cropped up because he had worked as a consultant for ASU's research planning during the previous decade. The regents were impressed both with his record at Columbia, where he had turned the science and technology departments into money-makers, and by his innovative ideas for ASU's future. He quickly became the regents' top choice, even when they had to pony up $468,000 for his annual compensation package-a big jump from the $320,000 that Lattie Coor had earned.

"You get what you pay for," said Herstam, adding that the regents gave Crow a "glowing" review in his first-year performance evaluation last September.

By all accounts, Coor had set the university on the right road. But Coor was an incrementalist, whereas "Mike skipped second, third and fourth gear and put the pedal to the metal," said Rob Melnick, ASU's associate vice president for economic affairs, who has worked closely with Crow in quantifying the university's potential economic value to the state and the region.

Right off the bat, Crow took advantage of the regents' desire to end their cookie-cutter approach to the state's three public universities. ASU, he said, would welcome growth, leaving selectivity to its historic rival, the University of Arizona, which is preparing to cap enrollment, and allowing Northern Arizona University to focus on undergraduate education.

But to grow, ASU needed money.

Crow didn't waste any time finding some. First, he helped convince the regents to approve a sorely needed 39 percent tuition hike, bringing annual in-state undergraduate tuition to $3,500. (Despite the increase, ASU is still less expensive than two thirds of state institutions; the impact of the increase has been partially offset by a 14 percent set-aside for financial aid.) Then, last spring, Crow shocked longtime education watchers when he pried $440 million for research infrastructure out of the conservative, cash-strapped legislature; $185 million of that is earmarked for ASU, the rest for U of A and NAU.

Crow's quest for dollars has not stopped there. He has secured $120 million in private donations-including two record-setting $50 million gifts. And he has set in motion more than $300 million worth of construction projects that will add a million square feet of research space to the university.

The idea is to make ASU less dependent on state funding by allowing it to generate more of its own revenue-to move it from a state "agency" to a state "enterprise." But all along, Crow has insisted that money was simply a way to improve the entire university and by extension, the Phoenix community.

He has put to rest early concerns that he was too focused on science and technology, with such diverse interdisciplinary projects as the Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family; the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict; the Center for Law, Science and Society; and the Center for the Study of Rapidly Urbanizing Regions. By steering a $10 million gift to the creative writing program last fall, Crow showed his willingness to support educational excellence in all forms, even those that generate more ideas than revenue.

He also has become personally involved in the faculty tenure process, which has been tightened; given raises to the top ten percent of faculty in an attempt to retain them; offered early retirement to longtime faculty in order to free up funds and spots to hire new talent; and hired several highly regarded administrators. One of these is former SmithKline Beecham executive George Poste, an internationally renowned scientist who is directing the Biodesign Institute.

Perhaps most importantly, Crow has created a buzz and an excitement about ASU that reaches far beyond the campus, into corporate boardrooms and the halls of the state capitol.

"When I see what Michael wants to do for this state, I just get goosebumps," gushed Phoenix home builder and philanthropist Ira Fulton. Fulton has long been a generous supporter of education, but although he had studied at ASU, he had never given a penny to the place until Crow was hired. "I can read people, and Michael Crow is a really unusual, talented person," said Fulton. "I instantly liked him because he's a do-it-now guy. No nonsense."

So when Crow asked for Fulton's help implementing his vision, Fulton didn't hesitate: In June, he gave $50 million to endow the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, and shortly afterward gave another $5 million to endow a chair in the College of Education.

"That's just a starter. He'll be hearing more from me down the road," said Fulton, who has pledged to use his influence to raise another couple hundred million from the business community.

   (Photo By Peter Ensenberger, Black Star, For CrossTalk)
Rick Weddle, president of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, thinks Arizona State University and the Phoenix area are "evolving in lockstep."

Crow is no stranger there. Shortly after arriving in Phoenix, he joined the executive council of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, and "from the first executive council meeting he attended, we have been forever changed," said Council CEO and President Rick Weddle. "Our discourse around significant matters was immediately elevated."

What Michael Crow is doing at ASU "is not only significant. It's embedded. It's symbiotic," said Weddle. "We see the university and the regional economy changing, shifting and evolving in lockstep. Our goals, our vision, are fundamentally aligned."

And there may be no better spokesman for those goals than Michael Crow. He is not a great orator, and he can sometimes appear defensive, arrogant and humorless in front of a crowd. But one-on-one or in small groups, he is said to be extraordinarily personable and inspiring.

Nowhere was that more apparent than at the state capitol last spring. Most longtime education observers were stunned when Crow defied naysaying skeptics and persuaded the Republican-controlled Arizona legislature, which faced a deficit in excess of a billion dollars, to invest $440 million in research infrastructure at the three state universities. His pitch was simple: Give the universities the means to become less dependent on the state, and in turn they will generate money not only for themselves but for the entire metro area.

(Photo By Peter Ensenberger, Black Star, For CrossTalk)   
Jake Flake, speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, is a strong supporter of ASU President Crow.

"Frankly, I bought it. I bought his philosophy," said Jake Flake, Arizona's conservative Republican Speaker of the House. A lifelong rancher, Flake puts Crow's ideas into agricultural terms to explain why he fought a hard-won battle for the bill: "You can't get a corn crop without planting corn. And you can't get a calf crop without putting bulls on your cows. And that takes money."

Historically, Arizona's universities have submitted budgets that included requests for a vast array of needs and programs. But Crow abandoned that approach and instead came up with a proposal that, beyond existing operating funds and enrollment growth, focused exclusively on money for research infrastructure.

"It was brilliant," said University of Arizona President Pete Likins. So brilliant that, immediately upon seeing the ASU proposal, Likins dumped his own more traditional budget in favor of Crow's approach. Recalled Likins: "I said, 'Damn! He's right! We should not blur our message by asking for a lot of things.'"

Still, the odds didn't look good.

A headline in the weekly Phoenix New Times dubbed it "Mission Impossible," and virtually everyone Crow spoke with agreed.

"I was told we had no chance of success," the president said.

Undaunted, Crow organized a full-court press on behalf of his research infrastructure bill. He became a common sight at the capitol, lobbying alongside U of A president Peter Likins and NAU president John Haeger. ASU also hired lobbyist and former Republican congressman Matt Salmon, a highly respected member of his party and a former state legislator who had recently lost a narrow gubernatorial election. The university enlisted the support of business, labor and trade groups, which stood to gain substantially from the construction boom the bill would finance.

Meanwhile, Crow unleashed a barrage of paperwork. Every lawmaker received a copy of his "New American University" white paper, which details his vision for ASU, and a copy of "Investing in Arizona's Future," a half-inch-thick report in which Crow makes his case for investment in science and technology. He also wrote letters to each and every lawmaker, even those who had gone on record against the bill.

Throughout, Crow eschewed a social-equity argument for university funding in favor of one emphasizing the potential financial payback. Crow and his team predicted an 11-to-1 return on the state's investment, through research and development it would spawn. The economic-engine argument was not a completely new tack, said Likins. But this time around, it got through in a way that it had not in the past.

"President Crow was the first I've ever heard say, 'I want more money now so I can be less dependent on you later,'" House Speaker Flake said. He also was the first university president to visit Flake's hometown of Snowflake, where, in a show of gratitude after the bill passed, he "bragged up the hometown boy" to the students at the local high school, said Flake, who still beams when he talks about it.

Republican Representative Doug Quelland, a vigorous opponent of the bill, is skeptical that the investment in research infrastructure will pay off. "It was way too much, too soon and too fast," he said.

By moving so quickly, Crow has ruffled some feathers within the university as well, particularly among faculty members who are nervous about where they fit in the new scheme of things. And some have been offended by what they perceive as a top-down, autocratic approach. But there has been no organized opposition to Crow, and he has a talent for winning over his critics.

"Every method of promoting change has its costs, and I feel that some very high-cost methods are being engaged in," said Marie Provine, director of the School of Justice Studies. But Crow is working diligently and skillfully to improve the university, and he has shown that he is willing to listen to faculty concerns, as he did recently, when he met with Provine and her faculty to discuss their opposition to a proposal that would move the school off the main campus. "He's not aloof, and that's a virtue in my book," Provine said.

That fact was immediately obvious to Alfredo de los Santos Jr., and his colleagues at ASU's Hispanic Research Center. On the day Crow took office, de los Santos and two of his center colleagues brought a large stack of material about the state's growing Hispanic population to the president's office, along with a note asking for a meeting with him. The response was astonishingly prompt and thorough: Within 24 hours, Crow's assistant called to set up that meeting, which was held within eight days.

(Photo By Peter Ensenberger, Black Star, For CrossTalk)   
Enrollment in Arizona State's three campuses is expected to grow from 57,000 to 95,000 by 2020.

"Not only did he respond quickly to our request to meet with him, it was clear he had read and assimilated the information we had provided him," said de los Santos. That impressed de los Santos, as has Crow's inclusive vision for ASU and his notion of coupling higher tuition with more financial aid for the neediest students. All of which is necessary if ASU is to serve the state's rapidly growing Hispanic population.

This year, minority enrollment at ASU hit a record 22 percent, about half of which is Hispanic. Those numbers are certain to increase: By 2012, Hispanics are expected to make up the largest number of Arizona's high school graduates, said de los Santos, who believes Crow's plans to grow the university-especially his plan to build a downtown campus that will be near Hispanic neighborhoods-will benefit them. "I am a fan," said de los Santos.

A newly published survey of 300 ASU faculty and staff indicates that he is not alone. Even ASU officials were startled to discover that 84 percent of faculty and staff surveyed said they are at least "somewhat" familiar with Crow's vision, and nearly the same percentage said they held a favorable opinion of that vision. What's more, 86 percent thought he had a high probability of successfully achieving it. (At the same time, nearly a quarter of faculty said that Crow would benefit from continuing to meet with and listen to them.)

Even so, Crow isn't counting his victories just yet. "We have gotten off to a very good start," he acknowledged. But at the same time, he said, "I feel significantly challenged."

For good reason.

Crow has convinced the business community and the faculty to accept his ideas. Now he has to keep the governor and the legislature on board. And that could be trickier.

Lawmakers and Governor Janet Napolitano not only must buy into Crow's vision but will have to come up with additional financing to support the enrollment increases that are at its core-especially since an increasing number of those new students are likely to need financial aid.

"The state cannot get the 60 percent growth in enrollments over the next 15 years without some additional investment in their public sector-or they won't have a public sector," warned Longanecker, of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. And Michael Crow is likely to get some of the blame. "If some resources don't come, people are going to say, well, this guy is sort of the Music Man."

A key test will come early this year, when Crow plans to ask the legislature for a $54.2 million increase in state support, mostly to cover enrollment growth. ASU hasn't received any increases in its base budget in the past three years, despite an enrollment increase of more than 7,600 students. Legislators have indicated that they are sympathetic to the school's cause, but Crow still faces an uphill battle.

"I think they deserve every penny of that," said House Speaker Jake Flake. "But I'm not going to raise taxes to get it for him." Flake said he would likely support a partial funding increase, but he doubted it would represent even half the amount requested. "We just don't have it," he said.

Then, too, the jury's still out on whether Crow's ambitious research goals are achievable, and whether his Biodesign Institute will really pay off. "Arguably, no university has gone from where this university is to where Mike wants it to be as fast as he wants to get there," said an exhausted-looking Jonathan Fink, ASU's vice president for Research and Economic Affairs. "Will it work? It's going to take ten years to see if it's successful."

In some ways, though, Crow has already been extraordinarily successful. "My job," he said, "is to help conceptualize what a great 21st-century university should look like."

Now all that's left to do is create it.

Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana, and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.

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