The New American University

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Christopher Newfield has a review of Michael Crow and William Dabars’ new book, Designing the New American Universityin which he gives a cogent analysis of Arizona State University, its vision for the future, and the national higher education ground on which it stands.

Newfield summarizes Crow and Dabars’ overview of ASU’s achievements – including expanding access, increasing diversity, and providing a better education, all in a state with politics such as Arizona’s. He also gives a fair assessment of Crow’s vision for the “New American University,” a moniker he has trotted out for the last decade as president of ASU. This vision is blatantly for access and equality – Newfield calls it “anti-elitist” and I don’t think he’s wrong. ASU’s claim to excellence has long been its willingness to welcome all and provide them with a quality education. This is an important part of the New American University’s vision. But, not for nothing, Newfield looks at how ASU has operated in the current climate of austerity and belt-tightening and finds a lack of vision:

Arizona’s state legislature cut higher education appropriations 32 percent from 2006 through 2011. Then the legislature delivered another 25 percent cut in 2011–’12. While I was writing this review, they voted another 14 percent cut for 2015–’16. As a share of Arizona’s general fund, higher education spending has been cut in half since 1982 (from 20 percent to 9 percent). While ASU was working on its eight NAU goals and making some impressive progress, its public funding base was being cut exactly as though it were the Old American University that has become a political whipping boy.

ASU’s response to these public cuts has been similarly traditional. Arizona was one of four states that saw its public universities double their tuition fees between 2006 and 2011. (California and Hawaii being two others.) ASU student loan debt now averages something over $21,000, up about 20 percent since 2008. ASU has used ever-increasing student body growth to generate ever-increasing enrollment revenues. Many of the new students were assigned to branch campuses or to online programs where costs are lower. Meanwhile, Crow was trying to increase other revenue streams (corporate partnerships, philanthropy) by raising ASU’s research prestige, which means offering special working conditions and internal subsidies for research teams on whose productivity ASU’s rankings climb would depend. Crow played the conventional game by growing enrollments and then using these revenues to support research outputs and reputation. To the extent that ASU uses low-cost enrollment growth to cross-subsidize showcase research, the NAU is welding its superstructure to a traditional budget base.

When he turns to the way forwards, Newfield identifies positive steps in the “New” part of the New American University. He finds a desire for nonhierarchical innovation among the main principles of Crow and Dabars’ vision, and goes on to outline why more universities don’t adapt such models (a section well worth reading). It’s worth noting that, while faculty aren’t up in arms about the New American University and ASU has actually found ways to operate without the levels of adjunctification that many other universities have endured, many of these changes are still extremely hierarchical.

While I was at ASU there was a rash of school and department closing. Within four years as a Education major I was a part of the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, the College of Teaching and Educational Leadership, and I finally graduated with a degree from the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College. These closings and mergers (there were three different education schools with different focuses and on different campuses as recently as 2008) were met with anxiety from some members of the graduate education population. Other departments were similarly reshuffled with little input from those working within the systems themselves. Combining schools or departments doesn’t always ensure that everyone gets the resources that they need and deserve. I am all for interdisciplinary studies (most of my education has been such), but as I’ve argued before, knocking down departmental barriers needs to be done by scholars and on scholar’s terms. There is a difference between “collaboration across traditional disciplines” and imposed interdisciplinarity.

Indeed, Newfield makes sure not to conflate Crow and Dabars’ dislike for elite, selective colleges with any hopes that they take a stand against the corporatization of universities:

At crucial points, the authors trundle in villains from central casting: “Faculty committees tend to deliberate while shifts in policy, culture, and technology flash by at warp speed,” etc., etc. Collaborative design cannot possibly move forward when the executive party feels entitled to judge (and lecture) the rank-and-file designers on the basis of off-the-shelf imperatives about disruptive innovation. Crow and Dabars miss an opportunity to advocate for fully inclusive collaborative design techniques. I wish they were as anti-managerial as they are anti-elitist.

From there, Newfield moves to a second criticism of the book (and Crow’s broader narrative) – a lack of demand for public funding of public universities. In the book, Crow and Dabars call mass funding of public higher education an “unattainable societal goal.” This is a perfect sum of Crow’s moderate fight against defunding in the Grand Canyon State, one which has caused nearly annual tuition increases in all three state universities. (Insert my all-too-frequent reminder that the state constitution calls for free higher education). Newfield closes with this wonderful conclusion on the New American University and the current higher education context in which it sits:

Crow and Dabars are right to want new public universities to replace the Harvard standard. Their book is worth reading just for that discussion. They also support “massive change” and celebrate moon shots. So then, how about these two moon shots? First, use ASU to model nonhierarchical collaborative design, design that replaces finance-driven restructuring supervised by academic executives. Second, call for the doubling of public funding of public universities (which shouldn’t be difficult as we have recently halved it), in tandem with a halving of tuition (which shouldn’t be difficult as we recently doubled it). Make “free college for all” a medium-term national goal. We did free K–12 a century ago. We did a moon shot for the actual moon. We can obviously do the same thing for correctly funded 21st-century public colleges and universities. But we need people in Crow’s position to tell the truth about the power shifts and the public money that the next-generation, democratized public university will require.

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One thought on “The New American University

  1. Pingback: The New American MOOC | Backslash Scott Thoughts

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