Arizona State University President Michael Crow encouraged educators to think outside of the lines while discussing his “New American University” model, an approach to institutional success that has taken ASU to the top tier of public metropolitan research universities in America.
Crow credited the school’s success to several key factors: “The methodological approach has at all levels been to have a unique vision and a unique identity, to be student-centric in our orientation, to have innovation trump tradition, to change the clock speed of the university, and to focus on and build into the culture continuous innovation.”
Crow explained that one of his initial tasks at ASU was working to ensure that the university was no longer seen as a government agency, emphasizing that a bureaucratic mindset is incompatible with academic success. “A new conceptualization has been important for us,” he said. Instead, ASU now views itself as “an enterprise of the public trust,” a necessary orientation for effective vision-casting.
Asserting that a college or university’s location is the single-most important factor in determining its identity, Crow questioned audience members about their institutions’ regional roles, using the metaphor of an economic ecosystem.
“Make sure that you’re doing research that you’re held accountable for to the benefit of the public good. We will be held accountable for the social, economic, cultural and health outcomes for the communities in which we’re in,” Crow noted, using the current separation between K-12 education and postsecondary education as an example of symbiotic breakdown, leading to detachment and less desirable student outcomes. “You can measure the success of your school by the success of the overall ecosystem. Ask the other players in the ecosystem how you are helping them be successful.”
In today’s over-saturated market, educational institutions also need to be able to distinguish themselves from their competition. “Every university and college needs to find something within its collective mission that it can become the best at,” he stressed. “We need something other than a generic identity.”
To move forward, ASU had to defeat the faculty-centric culture that pervades many educational institutions. “In a faculty-centric culture, you negotiate everything rather than dreaming together,” Crow explained. He suggested that institutional leaders ask themselves, “What is the focus of the institution? Is it the success of the student or the environment for the faculty?” If it is student success, the institution’s creative capacity should be unlimited.
Crow noted that innovation at every level, from hiring and training faculty members to structuring departments and incorporating technology, has also played a key role in ASU’s success. “Innovations are infinitely more important than tradition,” he explained. “Tradition has gotten us where we are.” Institutions often seem to run on their own timetables, frequently taking so long to make decisions that they are often already irrelevant by the time they are implemented. “Speed has become essential. The rate of change outside of the university is so fast that if you don’t innovate continuously, you will be destroyed and replaced.”
ASU now operates on a “design-build” mode. By expanding on correct decisions instead of adhering to a fixed, rigid structure, educators can avoid getting bogged down by outdated traditions. Once continuous innovation becomes the culture’s default response, it helps the institution stay relevant.
Citing Dwight Eisenhower, Crow remarked, “‘Planning is everything, and plans are worthless.’ Culture trumps strategy every single day of the week. We were able to successfully alter the culture of the university and thus by […] not just accepting the standard-issue culture, we are now able to do things, think about things, and achieve things in ways we were not able to do in the past.”