Monday, February 27, 2012

The New American University

After reading about Fred Terman several weeks ago, I sent a letter to Jonathan Cole, author of The Great American University and professor at Colombia. My question was this: Who are the great university leaders of our generation? Six weeks later he graciously sent a reply. At the top of his list was the president of Arizona State University: Michael Crow.

Crow has been noticed by many in higher education for his big idea, which he calls The New American University. By way of introducing the idea, in an ASU promotional brochure, Crow comments, “Do you replicate what exists or do you design what you really need?” For Crow, the university is not about doing research in a never-ending spiral of footnotes (replication), but in looking at the big problems of the world and creating useful knowledge.

The New American University (an idea Crow hopes will catch on past ASU), is defined by eight “design aspirations.”

1. Leverage our Place. By embracing the physical, cultural and socioeconomic location of ASU, new initiatives and partnerships are built around the needs of Arizona and the Southwest in general.
2. Transform Society. Social needs form the objectives for research programs, and have thus inspired new institutes and projects ranging from biomedical research and sustainability to health care and K-12 education.
3. Value Entrepreneurship. Here entrepreneurship extends far past the business school, and is encouraged in every field.
4. Conduct Use-Inspired Research. If your Ph.D. research has no apparent use in the modern world, then it might be better to look elsewhere for graduate school. Since 2003 investors have devoted over $100 million for new ventures from ASU Techonopolis alone. Research has a practical goal at ASU.
5. Empower Our Students. Here access triumphs over elitism. From partnering with the American Indian Community to launching the American Dream Academy, an institute that helps to instill the value of education in both parents and children, ASU works to give unprecedented access to higher education, as well as empowering students from all walks of life to succeed.
6. Fuse Intellectual Disciplines. ASU has gone crazy in the past decade creating over 20 new transdisciplinary schools and institutes, such as School of Sustainability, School of Earth and Space Exploration, the Center for Biology and Society, and the Arizona Institute for Renewable Energy.
7. Be Socially Embedded. ASU now has dozens of partnerships with local hospitals and schools throughout Arizona that make ASU a genuine agent of widespread social change.
8. Engage Globally. From MBA partnership programs in Shanghai to studying abroad at the Technológico de Monterrey, ASU engages the needs of the world.

Like a previous post about A New Liberal Arts, the idea is simple: our communities, states and nations have needs, and we need to reformulate higher education around engaging those needs. Liz Coleman at Bennington is doing it primarily among undergraduates and the liberal arts. Crow has transformed ASU from a top ten party school to an engine of useful innovation.

There’s much that could be said (and has been said) about Crow’s efforts to build a new model for higher education. But what really interests me is the deep connection between thinking and action, between the needs of the world and the intensive intellectual process required find creative solutions to meet those needs.

I’ve said this before, but Christians need to really pay attention to these voices. Given, these are both highly secular institutions. But they are in many ways shaming Christian educational leaders who are simply replicating what “bigger, better” schools do and haven’t deeply thought about creating academic programs that are focused on solving the big problems of our day.

I do genuinely think higher education will have to move in the direction of The New American University. Exponentially rising tuition costs have cornered many in the university. Students are laden with debt, and administrators must answer more and more to a public that demands a quality undergraduate experience.

This model is missing a key factor, however. God. And because God is missing so is the both the unity of knowledge and the keys to answering the biggest questions about human existence. But this model puts many Christian universities to shame who claim to be about God’s mission in the world but many times amount to little more than, in the words of a skeptical friend of mine, “pay your fee, get your degree.”

Christ calls educators to serve the needs of others. Michael Crow seems to me to be one of the great Cyrus’ of our generation, serving the needs of others and even the purposes of God, perhaps while not even knowing it. I wonder how many Christian institutions of education will notice this model and have the courage to refashion their own schools and universities around this model. Or perhaps some will not simply replicate this model and will instead design what their communities really need.

No comments:

Post a Comment