Lowering the Flag(ship)

Arizona State plans to do away with its “main” campus by giving each of its branches a unique identity.
October 18, 2005

It will no longer known as the “main campus,” but rather as “Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus.”

That may seem like a small change, but it’s a sign of the major overhaul that Arizona State is headed for. Last month, the state Board of Regents approved changes for state universities aimed at accommodating anticipated enrollment growth over the next 15 years. As part of that plan, Arizona State will open a new Downtown campus next fall, expand its Polytechnic and West campuses from 5,000 and 7,000 students, respectively, to 15,000 each.

In order to open access to more programs, students may pay tuition according to the program they enter. “You might want the education program to be lower, because teachers have lower salaries,” said Michael Crow, the Arizona State president. The changes will also mean doing away with the notion of a flagship campus, in favor of four that “each excel in a particular niche,” Crow said.

The Tempe campus, which will continue to serve about 50,000 students, will continue to be the place with large laboratories and “heavy science and engineering research,” Crow said. The West campus will emphasize “creative excellence,” Crow said, in liberal arts and interdisciplinary programs. The Polytechnic campus will specialize in applied science, and the Downtown campus will focus on public service, in disciplines like nursing, journalism and social work.

While “calculus is calculus” at every campus, Crow said, he hopes that by reducing the number of overlapping programs among the campuses, each will develop its own unique image, and the four campuses will be viewed as part of one major university, rather than as competitors. “We’re working hard to make sure we don’t have a totem pole,” Crow said.

Most of the faculty members interviewed are enthusiastic about the change. Paul Patterson, an associate professor in the Morrison School of Agribusiness and Resource Management, which moved from Tempe to Polytechnic in 1996, thinks the change can only help. “The faculty think it’s a great idea,” Patterson said, “especially those outside of Tempe. Nobody wants to be thought of as a second tier unit because of their location.”

But can an idea so firmly entrenched as the “flagship campus” ever really be removed?
George Gaither, director of the Institute of Research and Assessment at Prairie View A&M University and author of The Multicampus System in the 21st Century, has his doubts. ‘There’s always a competition problem,” Gaither said, adding that the University of California system failed to equalize campuses in the past. “It sounds good on paper, but the flagship is always ‘mother loves best.’ ”

Gaither said he thought it would be particularly hard to do away with the “main campus” image when Tempe will remain the major research center. He did add, though, that increasing the number of students at Arizona State will bring more state funding, and that that can happen even without an image overhaul.

Moving faculty members around “never works,” Gaither added. “People don’t just change easily. If you’re a chemist at Tempe, you’re going to try to convince people it’s the flagship campus.”
Some Arizona State do not want to move. George Watson is a professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, which will shift from Tempe to the Downtown campus, probably around 2008.

“I’m glad I won’t be here,” said Watson, who will retire around then. “I’ve been on this campus 36 years, and I hate the idea of commuting,” he said, adding that even the prospect of using light rail that the state is building to connect Tempe and Downtown, and which will be free for students, makes him cringe. “But most of my colleagues see it as an opportunity,” he said. “There’s a new building, and the Downtown campus is by the Arizona Republic and the [television] stations, and it’s a chance to chart our own course.”

Some faculty members who will stay in Tempe don’t expect much of a change at all, and the “main campus” idea may linger for a while. “The main campus will still have 50,000 students and the most professors,” said David Burstein, a professor of physics and astronomy. “It really doesn’t change what we do as faculty, it really just says what the campuses are, and that’s fine.”

Don Langenberg, professor of physics and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, and former head of the University of Maryland system, hopes that the campus totem pole will disappear, but thinks the changes will do some good no matter what. He noted that two campuses in the Maryland system have thrived in part by developing niches. Although College Park is the official flagship campus of Maryland, Langenberg said, the Baltimore campus, which specializes in health disciplines, is on track to surpass College Park in terms of research funding.

And the University of Maryland University College, which is dedicated to adult education, has seen the number of course enrollments shoot from 2,500, when it was founded six years ago, to over 140,000. “However you count, it’s on a trajectory that will make it the largest institution in Maryland,” Langenberg said.

He added that he hopes the changes at Arizona State will combat the need to rank every institution and every campus, a “plague in higher education,” he said, which adds nothing to institutions’ ability to serve the public. “If you have three or four campuses, in which each is essentially equal in the eyes of the citizens that they serve,” Langenberg said, “it seems to me counterproductive to start ranking them.” He recognizes, though, that the idea of a main campus with its lesser satellites is firmly entrenched in the minds of most academics and the public.
Quoting a colleague, Langenberg said, “there are some problems only a funeral can fix.”


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