Arizona State president talks about future of higher education

March 19, 2014 | Events, Features, UToday, Honors
By Meghan Cunningham

Universities are centuries-old institutions that need to learn how to adapt with forces of change in order to survive in the future, according to Dr. Michael M. Crow, the 16th president of Arizona State University.



During the final talk in the inaugural Jesup Scott Honors College Lecture Series last week, Crow spoke about universities needing to serve not only their students, but also the community at large in order to survive.

“Dynamic forces of the future are somewhat bleak unless they are able to reinvigorate, reattach to the people,” he said. “The future of higher education is one of unbelievable stress around who can innovate or who can’t.”

The forces of change universities are contending with, Crow said, include a growing and more diverse population that is interested in upward mobility through education, competition among other countries increasing the number of students pursuing higher education, and rapidly advancing technology.

Crow gave a number of examples of how Arizona State University (ASU) was completely transformed under the model he designed known as the “New American University.”

About six years ago, the university investigated why too large of a percentage of incoming freshmen didn’t succeed in math courses. Professors there had taught math in a fashion similar to many schools, starting with chapter one and moving chapter by chapter through all of the concepts.

An experiment with an adaptive learning program showed that each student took a different path through the material in his or her learning process. So the university revamped its entire math curriculum, using technology to allow students to go through the material in the ways that worked best for them. The failure rate, Crow said, went down to less than 10 percent.

Ten years ago, ASU went through a systematic institution-wide re-engineering. The school reorganized the curriculum to find “intellectual fusion” by either eliminating or combining some academic units, changed its research focus to be measured by the impact on the public good, and changed its vision to focus on not whom it excludes, but the students who are included and how they succeed.

Part of the reason people are questioning the value of college, Crow said, is because of the large difference between what he called the access-only and excellence-only models of operation.

Access-focused institutions accept all students, which could include those not prepared for college; without the proper support, such students’ performance rates and graduation rates can be quite low. When compared to excellence-focused institutions that only accept the top students from high school and therefore have very high retention and graduation rates, such universities simply cannot compete.

Universities need to find a balance between access and exclusion models of operation in order to succeed in the future, Crow said.

He said The University of Toledo, like ASU, is moving in that direction, and he praised UT as also being another front-line school concerned about the economic success and social mobility of its community.

Despite the many challenges, Crow said he is hopeful about the future of higher education.

“I’m optimistic about the fact that some of the smartest people our society has produced are housed in universities, and these people can do anything,” he said.

In addition to Crow, the inaugural Jesup Scott Honors Distinguished Lecture Series included education innovator and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, political consultant James Carville and business strategy expert Richard Rumelt.

Next year’s lecture series speakers will be Karl Rove, who served as senior adviser to President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2007 and deputy chief of staff from 2004 to 2007, on Sept. 15; musician Crystal Bowersox, the Toledo native and 2010 “American Idol” runner-up, on Nov. 12; Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and political commentator for CNN who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration, on Jan. 21; and Toledo Museum of Art Executive Director Brian Kennedy on a date to be determined.

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