“How many of you drive for a living? How many of you want to?” That’s the question Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, posed recently to an audience assembled in Washington, D.C., to learn about the future of driverless cars. Crow, who participated in a discussion called “Designing the Transition to Autonomous Mobility” with an executive from Waymo—Google’s self-driving car company—reassured the audience that though there will be some disruption, “all this doom and gloom and fear” is silly. “These are not replacement technologies. These are augmentations of us.” (Later, after news of the death of a pedestrian struck by an autonomous Uber vehicle in Arizona, Crow told me, “The tragedy in Tempe was a sober reminder that all advances in technology carry risk. My hope is that as autonomous vehicles get better and smarter, they will far surpass the safety of human-driven cars.”)
For a 62-year-old, pale, stocky former Ivy League professor of political science, Crow sure does seem gung-ho about the future. The day before the panel, Crow and I sat down in a conference room in ASU’s new building in Washington, tricked out with screens and Smart Boards. He told me about a recent trip to Greece he took with his wife.
With an extra day to kill in Athens, Crow went to visit the site of Plato’s academy. Getting out of his Uber, Crow says he realized, “This neighborhood is really bad. All the guys had these dogs with these big spikes in their neck that control them so they didn’t kill me.” Two thousand four hundred years after the beginning of Western philosophy, Crow recalled thinking, “This is it. This is the epitome. This is the birthplace of the modern university, the Gymnasium. .  .  . Instantly I realize that everything changes, nothing is the same. And so, this notion that somehow the university is a static thing, that’s a fatal error.”
Since 2002, when Crow became the 16th president of the school, ASU has been anything but static. Enrollment has grown to over 100,000 with more than 30,000 students taking courses online. At the same time, ASU’s four-year graduation rate has risen from 28.4 percent to 51.6 percent; for students who come in with an A-average in high school, the rate is 70.7 percent. And the student body has become more representative of Arizona’s population. Minority enrollment more than doubled, from 17.2 percent in 2002 to 35.2 percent today. As well, ASU’s budget has grown to over $3 billion, and it is doing half a billion in research expenditures. U.S. News & World Report has named it the most innovative school in America for three years in a row, placing it ahead of Stanford and MIT.
Crow credits much of this growth to technology—not only the online courses that make an ASU education more accessible but also the use of big data that has helped professors pinpoint what their students need to better understand their coursework. He says that technology is more important than ever at a university, not simply because students will need to understand how it works to get good jobs but because technology’s share of economic growth has grown exponentially. In a recent TED-like talk he gave on the state of the university to its various constituencies, Crow explained that before 1900, 8 percent of economic growth could be attributed to technology. Since 1945, that number has grown to something more like 75 percent.
But Crow insists innovation is not an elite sport, and colleges that define themselves by who they keep out rather than who they let in are part of the problem. He says that there was a time when the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, for instance, used to admit B-students, but that does not happen today. (Of course, given recent trends in grade inflation, this may not represent a change at all.) “Some public universities,” he tells me, “should still maintain the ability to admit every qualified student.” ASU does not have an open admissions policy, he emphasizes, but if you earn a B-average taking college preparatory classes in high school, you’ll get in.
For that matter, if you attend community college for two years and get a B-average, ASU will automatically accept you as a transfer student. Even if you can’t manage that, ASU offers classes online to help potential students reach ASU’s admissions standards. “We’re using technology to overcome the cultural system variables that may have defeated some of these kids,” he says.
This populist approach to higher education has intrigued many of the sector’s most traditional critics. Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, tells me that Crow “understands it is not okay for a public institution to confine its efforts to the elite.” Poliakoff has been particularly impressed with ASU’s ability to move students through courses that “are typically bottlenecks.” He mentions how ASU has used data and individually guided technologies to help students pass math prerequisites or other courses that might prevent them from majoring in rigorous subjects like engineering.
For a school that has become well-known for technological innovation and an embrace of new ideas, it was perhaps a little surprising to read that ASU recently launched a new program devoted to some old ones. The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State started offering classes as well as both minors and majors in the field in September 2017. A student studying classic works of Western civilization is preparing to become “a new kind of leader: trained in critical thought, humble about human imperfection, and ready for anything,” according to the description on the school’s website.
The school was not originally Crow’s idea. It owes its origins largely to the Arizona state legislature, which, like many groups of Republicans and conservatives nationwide, has grown increasingly troubled by the lopsided intellectual outlook of universities. With the blessing of Arizona governor Doug Ducey, ASU was offered money —$7 million—and a mandate to pay for a half-dozen new professors as well as some funds for the acquisition of rare manuscripts and to fund student activities.
Needless to say, such an offer would have been summarily rejected by most university presidents. Who do these legislators think they are, telling an institution of higher education how it should operate? That was the theme of a recent New York Times article, “Arizona Republicans Inject Schools of Conservative Thought Into State Universities.”
But Crow is no ordinary university administrator; he is much shrewder. Not only could embracing the idea improve his relationship with elected representatives in his state—something any public university president needs to think about in an era of shrinking budgets—but he could use it to attract more students and more attention for his university.
A couple of years ago, after the legislature put aside this money for the program, Harvard University’s Harvey Mansfield got a call from Patrick Kenney, a dean at ASU who had been tasked by Crow with creating a plan for the new school. Truth be told, it would hardly be the first foray into “conservative” thought at ASU. The university has received money from the Koch family as well as the Jack Miller Center to provide intellectual balance in its curriculum. The university also has a thriving honors college where students take a two-semester sequence of classes on the classics, including the great books of Western civilization. But this was going to be something different.
As Mansfield recalls the conversation, he advised Kenney against offering tit-for-tat political balance: “I said, ‘Forget conservative. Think Great Books.’ ” Mansfield, who subsequently crafted the new school’s mission statement and counts himself a “founding father” of the program, says, “At a certain point people have forgotten about Great Books. A return to them looks like a new idea.”
And Crow loves nothing more than a new idea. The new school has gone beyond its legislative mandate, hiring 15 faculty members, and Crow tells me excitedly that they plan to add at least 5 more. Led by Paul Carrese, who was lured away from the Air Force Academy, the school is offering courses like “Capitalism and Great Economic Debates,” “Tocqueville on Liberty, Equality, and Democracy,” and “Ideological Origins of Anglo-American Liberty.” There are nods to diversity—a course on “Women in Political Thought and Leadership” and one on “Political Thought in Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism”—but there is a refreshing interest in the Western tradition.
As Crow explains, “The new school is an expansion of our intellectual engagement where we thought that we were not adequately getting enough learning—we had not created a sufficiently robust learning environment for some faculty and some students in what I would call classic political thought, classic political theory, classic economic thought, classic philosophy. In the spirit of our other 20 or so transdisciplinary schools [into which he has divided the university], we built another one.”
Indeed, for Crow, the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership is simply “another one.” “We have more than 200 majors,” he boasts happily. “Are you allowed to major in journalism at Harvard?” he asks me pointedly. “Or tourism management?” (The answer in both cases is no). If variety is the spice of life, Crow sees ASU as a kind of educational jambalaya. (He has forced his own three children, who have attended traditional elite institutions, to double-major in college.) Whether you want to study health innovation or international trade or civil engineering, there is a degree for you at ASU.
Crow revels in ASU’s quantity of offerings and its flexibility in letting students study disparate subjects. He recalls going to a Jewish religious service on campus recently and admiring the voice of the cantor, an ASU student. She was admitted to Juilliard, she told him, but decided to come to ASU so she could major in opera and biochemistry at the same time. “For the other 52,000 undergraduates who are on campus, we have these hundreds of pathways for them. Each of them are created for them to optimize their learning outcomes when we’re trying to produce this master learner.”
So what does the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership represent in Crow’s mind? “What we were looking for was a particular learning environment. .  .  . It’s not like the PPE [Philosophy, Politics, and Economics] programs at Oxford or Cambridge .  .  . although it’s similar to those. It’s got pieces of those. It’s our sort of 21st-century version of a learning academy built around these powerful ideas on which much of our civilization is based. Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lineages and connections and content.”
But to be clear, this school is not the first among equals. Though Poliakoff tells me he is “very sanguine that we’ll see coming out of ASU a stronger core curriculum,” there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. Crow likes the classics but he likes a lot of other things too.
If you ask Michael Crow about his political affiliation, he declines to provide one. Instead he explains his philosophical affinities. “I’m happy to be in an argument with anyone, and sometimes I’d be on this side of the table and sometimes I’d be on that side of the table. Maybe, to you, that might make me weak, but what it means is that I’m a pragmatist.” He admires the pragmatic philosophers, whom he finds to be “very, very thoughtful and capable and intelligent.” And he thinks that pragmatists would support “intellectual diversity” in the university. Indeed, Crow says the philosopher he “pays the most attention to” is John Dewey.
Carrese has also noticed Crow’s interest in Dewey, suggesting that’s where he derives his philosophy about the role of a university in a democracy. “Michael Crow is interested in moral principles about equality. That’s a principle of justice for him.” For Crow that means not only increasing the number of students he serves from low-income backgrounds—the school has enlarged its percentage of first-generation college students significantly—but also ensuring that the university (especially because it’s a public one) serves the larger community. Its total research expenditures put it at 44 out of 876 institutions in the country. And among universities without a medical school, ASU ranks ninth in research expenditures. The school also prides itself on the economic contributions the university makes to the state, listing wages in 2015 for those who earned bachelor’s degrees between 1990 and 2015 at $5.5 billion.
Crow’s dedication to local communities isn’t just talk. The Great Hearts charter schools, a large network of Great Books K-12 schools in Arizona, have been looking for teachers and approached ASU to see if it might be interested in helping out. Crow tasked Carrese with creating a master’s degree in teaching for those who want to train to work at Great Hearts or similar schools. “This commitment to the fundamental principles of liberal democracy and to civic education,” says Carrese, means “he would look at this new department and say we could be doing more.”
But not everyone is pleased with Crow’s leadership style, to say nothing of the new Great Books program. There are the obvious complaints from the “Hey Ho, Western civ has got to go” crowd. Karen Kuo, a professor of Asian Pacific American Studies, told the New York Times, “They don’t seem to be interested in looking at diverse political theorists in this country, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Native scholars or Asian-American scholars.”
But the complaints go much deeper. In a cri de coeur for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Brooks, a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale University, wrote about how his own university narrowly averted the disastrous fate of ASU several years ago. “As I read the news of the [ASU School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership], memory came sweeping back. Something very similar almost happened at Yale when I was on the faculty there. It would have happened had not the faculty, myself included, said no. We might be less successful today.”
In the case of Yale, it wasn’t the state legislature offering money; it was the Texas oil billionaire Lee Bass, who gave the school $20 million for the creation of a Western civilization program. Brooks noted, “The announcement of a major new program before the faculty had been told of it—much less been given the chance to consider it—was unprecedented.”
The faculty threw a fit and eventually succeeded in blocking the program. Yale lost its $20 million, but as Brooks explains, the news from Arizona is further proof that “the tradition of faculty governance in academic affairs .  .  . has suffered everywhere. The university has come to resemble a corporation, with a larger and less accountable bureaucracy, and greater attention to the bottom line and to public repute as measured by U.S. News & World Report.” Brooks is particularly concerned about the deterioration of the institution of tenure. “As that system buckles under economic pressures, it means that administrators and donors gain relatively greater power to define the educational mission of the institution.”
For Crow, this is not exactly bad news. In the second half of the 20th century, he laments, “The university became too faculty-centric. It became unbalanced. .  .  . The university doesn’t exist for the faculty, particularly a public university; it exists for the students and the community.” “The faculty,” he says pointedly, “are the means.”
For Crow, this problem was especially obvious in the way that faculty at big universities were allowed to push teaching aside in favor of their own research agendas. “At UC Berkeley, in 1950, full professors taught at least 2-in-2 [that is, two courses each semester], if not 3-in-3 and now they teach 1-in-1, maybe, and sometimes not at all.” They can buy out their whole teaching load with their research. But Crow also notes that in 1950, Berkeley was “already a world-class research university. Where did that go? Why can’t you still work at that level” while also teaching?
For one thing, Crow notes, the high-powered, big-name faculty members are often happy to go to the highest bidder—the place that will offer them the largest salary for the smallest teaching load. It’s fine if you’re a private university and you want to play that game, but Crow says that’s not appropriate for a public institution.
Though he insists that he has been able to recruit and retain high-level research faculty, he has also limited the faculty’s power significantly. Crow hasn’t gotten rid of tenure, but he has significantly restricted its use. “If you’re on tenure or tenure-track, that means you’re doing scholarship for which academic freedom is a necessary protection for you to do that work.” But most of ASU’s faculty do not fall into that category. “If you’re on a lectureship, you are a teacher creating your own content .  .  . but you have no scholarship measurement for which you’re being held accountable,” Crow says, and so you are not eligible for tenure. “If you’re an instructor, you’re basically purveying someone else’s content.” No tenure.
Even for tenured faculty, Crow says there are real limits he has imposed using “post-tenure review.” Sounding more like the host of The Apprentice than a college president, Crow explains: “If you do not perform, you’re fired. If you get lazy, you’re fired. If you act inappropriately, you get fired. If you act [in a way] unbecoming of a faculty member, you get fired.” Tenure is, in Crow’s words, “an academic-freedom protection necessary to the advancement of knowledge, which has been misappropriated and abused by many, many institutions.”
The original idea for tenure as necessary to guarantee freedom for thinkers and researchers of the highest order was promulgated by none other than Crow’s hero, John Dewey. In 1915, Dewey coauthored with Arthur Lovejoy, a philosophy professor, a “Declaration of Principles” for the newly formed American Association of University Professors (AAUP):
To the degree that professional scholars, in the formation and promulgation of their opinions, are, or by the character of their tenure appear to be, subject to any motive other than their own scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow-experts, to that degree the university teaching profession is corrupted; its proper influence upon public opinion is diminished and vitiated; and society at large fails to get from its scholars, in an unadulterated form, the peculiar and necessary service which it is the office of the professional scholar to furnish.
The growth of the faculty’s power in the wake of this statement and the establishment of the AAUP was intentional. Though its ultimate effects may not have been foreseen by Dewey, his ideas about the formation of the research university were partly to blame. Like his Progressive colleagues, Dewey supported the idea that university faculty were to be “experts” in their fields—and that their fields were so specialized and their expertise so deep and important that ordinary members of the public did not have standing to question them.
As the number of academic specialties in American universities continued to expand, it became increasingly difficult—nay, impossible—for one segment of the faculty to judge the worth of another. Even within departments, were experts on kitchenware in Chaucer really qualified to understand the scholarship of experts on the literature of former slaves during Reconstruction? Or, more reasonably, were microbiologists prepared to determine whether their zoology colleagues were worthy of promotion?
With no centralizing authority for such judgments, the university’s centripetal force weakened and each department and discipline gained more and more power over its own turf. Which is precisely the problem that Michael Crow and others university leaders face. As Mansfield notes, “Professors today go about concerning themselves above all with protecting their turf.”
Crow, says Mansfield, has developed a kind of “Machiavellian” solution to this problem. By reorganizing the entire university into different transdisciplinary fields, he has left faculty squabbling among themselves in this turf battle. “Reorganization has the primary function of increasing the power of the reorganizer,” Mansfield chuckles.
Mark Yudof, who served as president of the University of California from 2008 to 2013, tells me, “Meshing disciplines is extremely difficult for public universities to do.” He says Crow is “extremely creative and ingenious,” which is how he has “survived in a difficult financial environment. .  .  . He is a genuine thinker in our field.”
The road ahead may not be easy, though. Yudof thinks that many people are overestimating the power of technology to save money. The evidence right now suggests that blended learning models—combining classroom experience and technology—are the most effective, but still accrue significant labor costs. Moreover, there is a lot of competition for the space that ASU is trying to occupy. Not only are traditional for-profit schools offering some of the same vocational training ASU does, but new players like Purdue University (with its recent acquisition of Kaplan, a big player in the world of online learning) will give ASU a run for its money.
Crow has wisely learned to pick his battles. He has likely made the Arizona legislature happy with the establishment of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, but he still has a long way to go to get what he really wants from it—more money and more freedom. The state’s investment in education has shrunk to $3,200 per student in inflation-adjusted dollars from a high of almost $8,000 per student in 2009. Crow wants to move away from a public-agency model—one in which the university is controlled by the state government and subject to various regulations—to a “charter” model, wherein the school receives a per-pupil dollar amount and operates independently but is held accountable by the state for its results.
The regulation of universities (and public education in general) by a centralized authority was a dream of Dewey and his cohort, as Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, notes. So Crow’s idea of a “charter” public university might end up undoing another bit of harm his intellectual hero caused. “Charter schools are the best single idea of American education,” says Arnn. “It locates authority where students and teachers and parents are gathered. They will come up with better solutions.”
Arnn suggests that Crow’s new model of a public university—and the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership in particular—has real potential. “It’s very common for every kind of college or university to make enormous claims that they’re good for society and that they prepare people to lead,” he says. Arnn once heard the president of the University of Southern California claim he is “stealing fire from the gods and bringing it down to man.” But “what Crow is doing is different and better. With this new school, he is giving some credence to the venerable understanding of our nation and where one would want to lead it.”
Though Crow may not believe that the classics of Western civilization should be a foundation for every education, they were clearly a foundation for his own. And as Mansfield notes, “People who study these books become better public leaders.” Which may be one reason Michael Crow has an edge over the competition.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.