Rebirth of the Research University: Is Arizona State University the Model?

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on the future of large research universities.  Citing the vision of Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, the article posits it may be time to rethink higher education master plans and develop a new model for the research university.  As desribed in the article (subscription required);

“The signal feature of Crow’s tenure at Arizona has been a febrile pace of experimentation and innovation. Units have been reorganized to create research and collaboration opportunities for students and faculty, such as the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. A variety of new schemes to generate revenue have been explored, ranging from doubling down on technology transfer and philanthropy to newfangled ideas like the development of ASU Online, which doesn’t just deliver traditional content via the web but also experiments with ways of fostering online student interactions. Expanding the latter program has entailed new sorts of partnerships with corporations, like Starbucks, to recruit their employees. And the campus has also energetically promoted the expansion of the traditionally enrolled student body, adding more than 20,000 students, with special efforts made to attract more low-income and underrepresented students. Arizona State University, in short, is taking its “mass education” mission as seriously as any university in the country today.

It’s probably too early to evaluate the success of its model, though early signs are promising. Under Crow’s leadership, the percentage of students with Pell Grants (i.e. students from low-income backgrounds) has steadily increased (much higher than at most flagship public universities, though still lower than the top institutions in the University of California system), but graduation rates have stayed frustratingly low. At the same time, while Crow correctly notes that admission to Berkeley (and the University of California at Los Angeles) has steadily become more difficult (now admitting less than 20 percent of applicants), ASU has adopted admissions policies similar to those of Berkeley in the 1950s and 60s, when high-school seniors needed only to graduate with a 3.0 grade-point average to qualify.

Research productivity has also increased: Crow and Dabars report that expenditures on research are up by more than 250 percent since 2002, without significant growth in the faculty. But Arizona State is not (yet?) a member of the Association of American Universities, and many of its more-innovative programs have not been in existence long enough to measure their real contributions or ultimate success. Certainly not all these innovations have always been warmly greeted. Crow’s effort to channel resources into productive new arenas has also involved tough decisions to end programs, decision that have been met with great resistance. Perhaps the best-known case was the attempt to dismantle the Cancer Research Institute, which led to lengthy public controversy and litigation. It remains to be seen if genuinely advanced research can be productively pursued in a great many areas of endeavor, given the challenges of a student body and educational mission that resemble the Cal State system far more than they do UC.

Beyond the excitement generated by many of Crow’s proposals, what is perhaps most heartening is his commitment to the idea that research is a fundamental feature of the university, not one that can be dispensed with on the road to mass delivery of education. In this, Crow is arguing against the premise of most, if not all, for-profit education corporations, both online and off, which implicitly, if not explicitly, assume that educational “content” can be delivered to “customers” absent funding by corporate “suppliers” for the complex (and expensive) process of supporting research.”

The Arizona State University model is one to be watched.  It will probably be emulated by other publicly-funded research universities.



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