The velocity of change

By

Steven Beschloss

Fifteen years ago, Michael M. Crow brought his idea of the New American University — an agile and radical reimagining of higher education — to ASU. Neither naysayers nor the Great Recession could derail his vision, and he has no plans to slow down anytime soon.

In the first years after arriving at Arizona State University in 2002, Michael Crow began handing out a short handbook to managers called “High-Velocity Culture Change.” The 44-page book is filled with pithy sayings intended to jolt your thinking and motivate action: “You’ll have trouble creating a new culture if you insist on doing it in ways that are consistent with the old one.”  

More than a decade later, Crow is still giving this slim volume to managers, still seeking to spur disruption like he did when he first arrived. Scanning its pages, he reads out loud another call to arms: “It’s time for ‘tough love.’ Caring harder. Caring enough to take the company through the tough, unpopular struggle of culture change so it can survive.”

Crow pauses, reflects on how this resonates to him.

“I am willing to take any amount of abuse. Any amount,” he says. He’s not kidding. “It’s not about me. I’m not here for me. Literally, I’m not. I am here to deliver an organizational culture and a set of services to people who can get them in no other way. I’m responsible to them. I’m an expendable commodity.”

This is verbatim Michael Crow. Confident. Straight up. Makes you think. Built for action. In the same moment that he tells you he cares about improving lives, giving people a chance to better themselves, he lets you know that he’s up for a good fight. It’s this bracing style that makes an impression instantly.

“He speaks his mind,” says Sybil Francis, his wife and executive director of the Center for the Future of Arizona. “I admire that about him. He is who he is. It’s almost like he’s constitutionally unable to do anything differently.”

For those who don’t know him, they sometimes need a double take to realize he really is after something that’s not about him — that he is willing to spend nearly every waking hour (he’s fabled for sleeping just four hours a night) doing what he can to move the university forward. He doesn’t have much patience for platitudes that are not based in reality or won’t lead to clear, productive outcomes.

As he moves into his 16th year as president, he remains a man on a mission. And nothing — not reaching 100,000 students faster than expected, not dramatically improving graduation and retention rates, not topping the list as the nation’s most innovative school, not even frequent calls from recruiters or the public flattery of being called a potential contender as Harvard’s next president — is likely to shift his focus from accelerating ASU’s impact and producing an educational environment that allows the widest possible population to reach its potential.

An economic blow

Crow’s ambitious vision has been severely tested. Rewind to 2008 and 2009, when the Great Recession coursed through the United States like an unrelenting tsunami. There was serious reason to doubt that a New American University ambitiously pursuing growth and access, excellence and societal impact would endure.  

Bear Sterns collapsed; Lehman Brothers and General Motors filed for bankruptcy. The housing market imploded, and home foreclosures skyrocketed. The unemployment rate doubled, and the Dow Jones suffered an 18 percent drop in a single week, its worst ever. And in Arizona, one of the states hardest hit by the housing crisis, the budget deficit climbed to $1.5 billion in 2010 and threatened to reach $3.4 billion in 2011.

In quick succession, ASU saw its state funding plummet, down $87.5 million in fiscal year 2009, down an additional $22.6 million in fiscal 2010 and then a $95.4 million hit the following year. All told, it was a brutal blow, by percentage the deepest cuts to higher education in the nation. Already, by March 2009, the university eliminated more than 500 jobs, including deans and department chairmen and chairwomen; shut down 48 academic units; and instituted unpaid furlough days for some 12,000 employees.

Many were asking what would become of ASU’s plans, including the dramatic expansion of transdisciplinary research and the commitment to a socioeconomically diverse student body. The New York Times pointedly questioned whether Crow would have to rein in his ambitions. Plenty of faculty members wondered whether they and their departments would survive. The State Press, ASU’s student paper, was particularly blunt in its assessment: “The New American University has died; welcome to the Neutered American University.”

Some were also wondering whether Michael Crow would stick around. But the naysayers sorely misjudged the man at the helm.

Here’s how he recalls his mindset at the time: “The country is in deep trouble. I don’t know exactly what all of the casualties are, but this is the greatest financial disruption since the Depression — and captains that leave ships at these moments should be executed.” With typical bravado, he told Tamar Lewin of The New York Times, “I don’t retreat very easily.”

When others were inclined to manage decline, make across-the-board cuts and simply hold on, Crow responded by accelerating the strategic vision. He had his eye on the prize: “The last thing you want to do in an economic recession is reduce your capacity to produce more highly trained individuals,” he says.

That included accelerating plans for the Downtown Phoenix campus, designing a new set of online initiatives, seeking new partners and taking a hard look at which programs and schools should survive.

“We needed to take advantage of the chaos around us,” he says.

Crow doesn’t minimize the hardship of those years, the economic and social dislocation that it caused, the pain for individuals and families. But he also recalls those days with great pride and how they demonstrated that the cultural change was in full swing. By law, those on unpaid furlough are not expected or obliged to work. Yet many ASU people chose to work without pay.

“It was amazing,” Crow says. “People just stepped up. It was really a proud moment for me on behalf of the institution.” And more, “what that meant was our culture had shifted, and had shifted to the point where we were deeply committed to our mission. People said, ‘Maybe this can work. Maybe we can come out of this even stronger.’ We did.”

‘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...