ASU’s Michael Crow: ‘The Rest of the Culture Sees Us As a Virus’

Higher Education

ASU’s Michael Crow: ‘The Rest of the Culture Sees Us As a Virus’

By Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 10, 2019

ASU’s Michael Crow: ‘The Rest of the Culture Sees Us As a Virus’
Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University

Michael Crow is building an empire, one that frees the state university he leads, Arizona State University, from dependence on declining state funding.

ASU has grown into an online education powerhouse since Crow took the helm 17 years ago, and the president has earned a reputation as one of the most innovative university leaders. But not everyone thinks that’s a good thing, as critics complain that he’s too corporate and has turned the state university into what one author called “a factory of credentialing.”

Crow argues that he’s creating a prototype of a “new American university” that cares more about opening access to diverse students than chasing high rankings in U.S. News.

This week the university co-hosted its tenth annual conference on university and edtech innovation, the ASU GSV Summit. At the conference, the university announced the creation of a new for-profit spin-off, called InStride, to serve as a broker and tech platform for companies who want to offer college education as a perk to their employees. That’s not a totally new idea—companies like Guild Education do something similar and other colleges have tried to build such services in-house. But its arrangement is unique, in that it is a partnership between a state university and a venture fund, The Rise Fund. (And it’s worth noting the Rise Fund’s financier and former leader, Bill McGlashan, was arrested last week for allegedly participating in the admissions-bribery scam that rocked higher education last month.)

This week, EdSurge sat down with Crow to talk about the new project, and where his efforts fit in the broader landscape of higher education.

EdSurge: The college admissions scandal serves as a reminder that there's a cultural narrative that elite higher education is this path that people are willing to go to crazy ends to access. In this case it was bribery or making up sports athletic profiles for these students as they try to gain to certain places.

Michael Crow: It's a huge unbelievable distortion of the American ideal. The American ideal was literally a revolutionary war in which we killed British soldiers and threw the King's yoke off of our neck so that we could be free of the notion of hereditary assignment of social status and social class. So we could be free of this notion of social class being granted at an early age in your life through something that you were able to do.

So [now we have built] institutions which grant social status upon admission, but no achievement. Admission to a college shouldn't be the achievement. It's the success at the college and what you do with the college. So what we have is just a totally perverse outcome.

We're trying to construct the model where our faculty is fantastic. That's what we call academic excellence, and we say that we're a public university and therefore must be egalitarian. So we admit every student that meets our admission standards. That's the way that public universities ran forever and ever.

This week you announced a new for-profit entity called InStride, to help employers work with colleges to offer tuition benefits to colleges. It sounds like an extension of ASU’s deal with Starbucks and other employers.

Our project with Starbucks is that we have a mutual interest in this question of, can you take an individual while they're working full-time and develop their educational foundation. Can you build human capital while someone's working? Since you have 30 million plus people that went to college and didn't finish, that's a pretty important question.

But when they're 40 years old, they might decide that they need such an educational framework. So in our mind, we're kind of weird, we think the only time you can go to college is when you're 18. Well that's bad, what about if you need to go to college when you're 45, what do you do? So Starbucks and ASU decided to create an opportunity inside a company where we can create the means and the mechanisms and the financial structure and the technology platform and the learning platform to take thousands and thousands of students and plug them into an active, fully research capable, fully comprehensive university, and can we make that work.

The answer is now, four years into it, yes. We have 3,000 graduates, we have 11,000 students, we have multiple programs, all kinds of things that are happening. So then we said to ourselves, okay, now what if we wanted to do that with a hundred companies. We don't have the means to do that. That's not what we do. So we needed to build something, think of this as InStride. InStride then would go out to companies, these are companies, and figure out how to build inside companies relationships where universities' sitting on the other side of InStride, this would be us over here, some other schools over here.

So now you go back to the universities like us. If we had the right intermediary, the right what we call boundary spanner, could they build these relationships and figure out how to design the programs and figure out what the company wanted and then come back and translate that. Could they then manage these relationships so that we can manage what we have to manage? We have to manage the complexities of the faculty, the academic design, the degrees, the pedagogy, the research activities. I've gotta raise money for all kinds of things to advance universities. We've gotta build residence halls, we've got all these things going on all the time. The other thing is then that this requires capital investment.

Did The Rise Fund come to you with this idea?

We met at this meeting [ASU GSV] and then started talking about what we might get done. We had been out looking for a partner to take this idea. In a sense, this is like a spin-out idea capitalized by a social impact fund.

The person who's been hired as the CEO here is a guy named Vivek Sharma. He's an adjunct professor of computer science at USC and former senior vice-president for Disney for all things digital. So he comes out of that corporate world and he also is all things digital. So imagine the universities now are producing digital solutions, digital learning solutions. What we need is digital expertise to take digital learning solutions from the universities and find ways to put those digital learning solutions into these companies.

Are the people who come in through the InStride going to have access to all the different courses that the university offers, or is it going to be tailored to what that employer wants?

Well, my hope is that we find as many companies that want to go the way that Starbucks has gone. The way Starbucks goes is you can take whatever you want.

But will that be up to the employer? Because you can imagine that companies wanting to tailor the options to their needs.

Yeah, well, I would not be a fan of that. So, one of these companies that we've talked with has said they need more creativity among their employees. I said, “Great, you should have them all study English or Philosophy.” We're not going to take somebody who comes to us and says, “Can you build us something?” [To that we would say,] “Um, no? This is what we have.”

We have over 200 online degrees. There's lots to choose from, and those could be broken down into certificate or micro-masters or even micro-bachelors degrees and other kinds of things. But it's still our content. So, what we need then is this interface. That's what InStride is all about.

You have so many different projects going and you’ve been named one of the most innovative colleges in America. What is your biggest obstacle to this vision playing out?

One is that we're contrarian to the culture. I've been in this job for 17 years. So when I came into this office, basically other university presidents said to me. “Well, you know Crow, the easiest way for you to just really move ASU out of that party school reputation that it has and really move it into the top ranks is to cut out the bottom half of your freshman class.”

To make ASU more selective?

Yes. Then your reputation will shoot through the roof. So, we've even run the simulations. If we had cut out the bottom half of our freshman class, versus the way that we've actually gone, I mean, we would be like the superstar story of the universe. For the most part, the higher education media, I'm sure not you, wouldn't even know what we had done to do it. Man, can you see them? They're just shooting up in the rankings.

We are perceived to be some sort of interloper in the culture. The rest of the culture sees us as a virus.

And, the good thing about viruses is that viruses are highly evolutionary in their purpose.

Do you think that will ever change? You’ve been at it for 17 years.

Now people are like, “Well, maybe it worked a little bit.” So, our research funding has gone up by a factor of five. We're the fastest-growing research university in the United States for each of the last 10 years. We have been hiring great faculty, producing great students. We doubled our four-year graduation rate, diversified the student body, all these things. Yeah, so we did that. So, I think people that want to innovate, look at us and say, “There's things that we can learn over there.”

By the way, if [InStride] is successful and we help corporations to educate people so the corporations become more successful, and we help people in these corporations get college degrees after they didn't finish and that helps the economy grow, and along the way we make money that we can continue to invest back in the institution, then we're solving two problems at the same time. One, how do we fund the university, and two, how do we get better college outcomes for people across the spectrum of our society?

I have another book coming out following the last one—it's 95 percent done. That book is going to be about how to build more of these [innovative universities]. And then what should they look like and what should they be? I think we're calling it something like the Fifth Wave, since there's been four waves of higher education evolution in the U.S.

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