Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow (courtesy ASU)

Speaking this week at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, Arizona State University President Michael Crow asked his audience: “Can we build a new kind of college or university?”

Crow asserted our nation faces “a fundamental economic and social change moment, like nothing that anyone alive today or our parents or grandparents have ever experienced.” As technology advances so rapidly–it “accelerates infinitely”–we must adapt to corresponding changes in “all the things we think about, the way an economy works, the way work is done, the definition of work and education, the definition of a career and a job.” All of these definitions will be altered by technology’s transformative outcomes–such as the fact most of us now carry supercomputers in our pockets.

Crow expressed concern that many higher education institutions are not currently nimble enough to respond to social changes, including a more diverse population and more global competition. He said to the governors, “We all inherited a design for public higher education that is rigid, fixed, largely incapable of understanding how to modernize.”

He also criticized the stigmatization of students who do not graduate from formal programs. Those who fail to complete high school by age 18 are effectively assigned “to a life of suffering.” Those who don’t finish four-year college programs are labeled as “dropouts–a derogatory term.” Crow added, “We have a system of higher education that uses derogatory terms to label people that did not finish their institution which cannot adjust to helping them to finish.” Moreover, these outcasts are hardly a minority, as they amount to 33 million citizens.

Crow provided two positive examples of forward-thinking institutions which are trying to adopt new models for education. Purdue University, led by former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, purchased an online learning platform (from Kaplan University) with the goal of expanding the scale and scope of education beyond local, campus students. Crow noted that Purdue’s faculty are opposed to this non-profit initiative, known as Purdue Global, and are fighting its accreditation. “That’s insanity,” he said.

Crow also cited Arizona State’s partnership with Starbucks, which aims to provide supplemental education to many of its 130,000 employees–half of whom did not attend or complete college. He explained the idea behind the program:

“Couldn’t a great, conscious, capitalist corporation like Starbucks…work with a civic-minded university to develop a program that could find a way to get people that had started college, that were out in the workforce, that had debt or some problem–could we come together to figure out a way you could graduate from college, from a great university, with no debt?”

To date, 1,000 students have graduated from this new program, and another 7,000 Starbucks employees are currently enrolled.

Crow added that the Starbucks program, which provides online education to students who may have a spotty academic record, threatened to dilute ASU’s brand. Sarcastically, he explained ASU “had to do brand control to maintain damage control on our own brand. Only a lowlife scum university would be so foolish as to divert the energy of its elite faculty to educating college dropouts working at Starbucks.”

A view of ASU’s Tempe campus (courtesy ASU)

Generally, Crow encouraged the governors to embrace innovation in higher education, although he repeated that schools tend to oppose change. Implying that faculty tend to lead such resistance, Crow said, “The university does not exist for the faculty. This is serious business. Our university exists first for the students, second for the community, and lastly, the faculty are the means, rather than the end, of the institution.”

He also emphasized the importance of measuring progress from innovative experiments, as well as planning for scalability in educational offerings. Scaling requires thinking beyond the on-campus student population, he said.

With regard to price control and sustainable financial planning, Crow suggested an enterprise–rather than public agency–model, for public schools. Speaking of ASU, he said, “We acquire our resources not from the lord and master, the state government. The state government invests what they can. Our other resources are acquired through partnerships and through engagement in the market.”

Crow told the governors: “You are the arbiters of the future. You have the unique responsibility for advancing and designing those elements of our democracy that are most critically dependent upon education and for overseeing those educational processes in each of the states.”