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Arizona State University has serious problems, and that’s just the way Michael Crow wants it.

Since Crow was named president of Arizona State eight years ago, the university has increasingly organized itself with an eye toward attacking some of the world’s greatest challenges. Rather than divide an institution into academic departments – those are just “social constructs,” he’d argue – Crow has pushed for new cross-disciplinary organizational structures that are defined by the problems faculty seek to solve – reforming K-12 education, for instance – rather than the disciplines of those who will try to solve them.

“The standard rigid model is ossified,” Crow says with something approaching disdain.

The “rigid” structures that have come to define academe are targets for Crow, a much-watched university president who sounds as if he’d like to take a sledgehammer to the kinds of colleges and schools that exist at most institutions across the country, including, for the most part, Arizona State.

Crow’s philosophy is playing out across the four campuses that comprise Arizona State, where nine traditional engineering departments were recently combined into five schools. The new groupings include the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, which gobbled up the departments of aerospace, chemical, materials science and mechanical engineering. In so combining the disciplines, Arizona State officials argue they are forcing faculty out of silos and making them work together for the greater good. They concede, however, that there’s still not much evidence to suggest whether Arizona State is really transforming or merely rebranding.

“I think it’s a very valid question,” says Paul Johnson, executive dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “And for somebody who wants the hard data and the objective study of whether we really did something different, we’re probably a couple of years away from that.”

Other manifestations of Crow’s approach can be found in the School of Evolution and Social Change, which replaced the university’s anthropology department with an expanded home for mathematicians, political scientists, geographers and sociologists who are trying – to quote the school’s stated mission – “to discover not only who we were but where we are going and how we may alter our destiny.” The grand rhetoric that defines the School of Evolution and Social Change is mirrored in other new schools that have emerged during Crow’s tenure. The School of Earth and Space Exploration, for instance, describes itself as “dedicated to expanding the frontiers of knowledge through the exploration of Earth, space, matter, time and life.”

The Crow years have been so transformative that the university’s chief research officer describes the time that predated Crow’s tenure as “the BC era” (Before Crow).

“Sometimes you feel people have rhetoric but there isn’t substance to it,” says Sethuraman (Panch) Panchanathan, deputy vice president of the university’s office of knowledge enterprise development. “I was amazed by [Crow’s] intellect, his passion, and it was very clear to me he meant what he said.”

Photo: Arizona State University Archives

An archived photograph shows the first day of classes at the brand-new Arizona Territorial Normal School on Feb. 8, 1886. The first class of the school that would become Arizona State University had 33 students, and President Michael Crow now envisions Arizona State could one day serve 100,000 people. Apart from his insatiable appetite for growth, Crow argues that many universities are locked in organizational structures of the past that weren't built to solve modern problems.

While “the jury is still out” on whether Arizona State’s approach will pay off, Panchanathan already sees some positive signs. He notes, for instance, that the university’s research expenditures have tripled under Crow, growing from about $120 million in 2001 to $370 million in 2010.

In an era when many research universities saw huge gains, however, those figures still pale in comparison to the types of expenditures churned out by the nation’s foremost research workhorses, which are often presumed to be the institutions best poised to really solve the world’s most vexing problems. In a 2008 ranking of the top-20 universities by research expenditures, none fell below $580 million, the National Science Foundation reported.

Approach Not Without Risk

If Arizona State’s model is to gain acceptance or adoration, there are plenty of questions left to answer. Does renaming departments and organizing around cross-disciplinary problems really produce better research or better students? Can a broadened curriculum be designed without skimping on depth? Can professors from different disciplines agree on expectations for a tenure candidate whose scholarship combines elements as various as computer science and dance?

Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, says the questions surrounding Arizona State’s approach are numerous and may be unanswered for some time. While the ideas are interesting, “It is an experiment,” he says. “There’s nothing that guarantees it’s going to work.”

“I think they’re very idealistic, and they’re trying to make a radical shift, and they know it,” says Vest, former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “They see [this approach] as a path to leapfrog, but it’s an experiment and it’s got a big risk.”

The risk, Vest says, is that Arizona State will invest a lot of time, money and energy turning the academy on its head without producing tangible results, such as better research and the improved employability of students who are necessarily coming out of an experimental program. That said, the changes aren’t being dismissed as mere rebranding, Vest says.

“I have not heard people talk about smoke and mirrors, and I think the reason is they’ve attracted enough clearly substantive people,” he says. “Does everybody assume this is the future and they’re going to be ahead of everybody else? No, I don’t think so.”

In pursuit of "substantive people," the university has mined traditional academic powerhouses to find leaders for its new programs. Kip Hodges, for instance, left MIT in 2006 to become the founding director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

While Crow often defines Arizona State against traditional colleges – we don’t all have to be the same way, he often argues – Hodges says it’s not inconsistent that the university’s contrarian president still recruits talent from institutions that fit traditional standards of academic excellence.

“It would be a better or more sustainable position, let’s say, to say that we don’t need the imprimatur, the blessing of those people at the other [traditionally elite research] universities,” Hodges says. “But what Michael’s trying to do – and everybody at the university is not Michael, of course – but what Michael is trying to say is you can play with the big boys and you can attract people from the big boys by doing things in a different way.”

Hodges, who spent 23 years at MIT as a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, says he struggled while there to bring scientists and engineers together in meaningful ways. He saw an opening, however, to do just that at Arizona State in a new school specifically designed for such collaboration. Indeed, Hodges came on with none-too-uncertain orders to recruit faculty – lots of them – from multiple disciplines, including astrophysics, cosmology, earth and space education, earth system science, planetary science and systems engineering.

“I thought it was a really radically new way to look at things, and I was convinced enough of that that I drank the Kool-Aid and came to ASU at that point,” he says.

The very fact that Arizona State lacks the elite status of a place like MIT may actually be an advantage when trying to do something different, Hodges says.

“Turning a big successful university like MIT is a little like turning the Queen Mary,” he says. “It’s very difficult to get people to play in that possibility space.”

That’s not to say, however, that a lot of universities of varying size and research status don’t encourage cross-disciplinary research, often through the establishment of centers and institutes. Indeed, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t. What’s different about Arizona State, however, is the degree to which the university has embraced the notion that new organizational structures may be necessary to break down silos. Students and faculty at many institutions, for instance, would likely scoff at the idea that departments needed to be killed off to encourage professors to work together.

Pamela Matson, dean of Stanford University’s School of Earth Sciences, says she’s been impressed by the manner in which Arizona State has gone all-in on a systematic restructuring in service to transdisciplinary research and teaching.

“They are going after this at a scale and rate that is beyond what most universities are doing, and that’s partly because they have the leadership of the university president,” says Matson, who is on an advisory board for Arizona State’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

Photo: Arizona State University

The historic Arizona Biltmore hotel – with a design influenced by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright – was the site of the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Phoenix Summit, presented by Arizona State's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The schools have reorganized to attack a series of challenges, including the engineering better medicine and preventing nuclear terror.

While Matson sees innovation at Arizona State, she’s not ready to anoint the university as the lone trailblazer in a pack of otherwise stagnant institutions. In the area of sustainability, for instance, Matson counts Stanford, the University of Minnesota and the University of California at Berkeley as other truly innovative institutions that have harnessed the talents of faculty from disparate disciplines in pursuit of common goals.

“[Arizona State has] gone further out probably than other universities in sort of challenging the structure of the university to do this,” says Matson, a professor of environmental studies at Stanford and a senior fellow in the Woods Institute for the Environment. “On the other hand, I think there are a lot of ways of doing this that might have the same levels of success.”

Crow was viewed by many as an innovator before he ever came on the scene at Arizona State, but his lofty ideas have historically had mixed success. As executive vice provost of Columbia University, Crow played an instrumental role in ushering in a much-ballyhooed project called Fathom. The for-profit online learning platform, which was designed to sell Columbia faculty lectures to the public, cost the university millions before financial difficulties proved its undoing. Crow was also a key supporter of "Biosphere 2," a giant Columbia-supported terrarium that became the butt of jokes and even inspired a Pauly Shore movie. The university abandoned its involvement with the project in 2003.

Humanities Find Place in Mix

When Crow waxes philosophical about Arizona State's grand plans, he often expresses a desire to "make the sciences less boring." To that end, Crow's stump speech is often more about going to space or building cool stuff to save the world than it is about the mechanics behind it. This reporter, for instance, has never heard him mention calculus. That said, the sciences in general are often front and center for Crow, raising another question: Where do the humanities fit into this experiment?

To hear it from faculty, the humanities actually fit pretty well within Crow's vision. The university's Department of English -- yes, it's still a "department" -- is hiring faculty and reducing student/faculty ratios. There's also a recently developed School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies that aims to "mold global citizens with democratic values."

If the humanities aren't always on the tip of Crow's tongue, it doesn't mean they don't have a place in his heart, says Sally L. Kitch, founding director of the Institute for Humanities Research.

"No, I don't think he does [talk about the humanities as much]. Can he be reminded? Yes," says Kitch, a professor of women and gender studies. "I see a lot of my role [as keeping] the humanities in his purview. But I think his juices got flowing around what he sees in the sciences, and he continues to see that more easily."

Neal A. Lester, chair of the Department of English, agrees that his department has not been left behind while the sciences are growing. That said, he is sensitive to the frequent proclamation that departments are, by their very nature, fossils of a bygone era. That kind of thinking fails to capture that English professors have long worked across disciplines, well before schools became the hot trend in Arizona, Lester says. Indeed, Lester says he recalls once telling an administrator his concerns about quotations in a local news story that seemed to imply the schools were "more progressive" than the rest of the campus.

"I'm hoping people aren't perceiving that schools are something more cutting-edge than a department," Lester says.

Finances a Motivation, Too

For all of the talk about a collective mission at Arizona State, there's no doubt that budget cuts have a place in conversations about combining or eliminating departments. The university's state budget has been cut by about $105 million or 20 percent since 2008. While tenure and tenure-track faculty positions have been protected, the university has eliminated 1,210 positions, of which 713 were layoffs.

Richard Stanley, senior vice president and university planner, says the reorganizations have led to hundreds of positions being eliminated. Multiple administrative units that once governed history, religious studies, philosophy and three colleges of education, to name a few examples, have been crammed into single interdisciplinary units with fewer staff, he says. That said, Stanley and others argue that finances weren't the core motivation for most of the reorganizations.

"We haven't put together any units that don't make sense just for finding administrative savings," he says.

Many of the new units, however, are counting on growing -- not just sustaining their numbers. Stanley says hiring will continue, even if it happens at a slower pace than administrators envisioned years ago.

Tenure Criteria Being Hammered Out

Even for those who have embraced Arizona State’s emphasis on breaking down traditional departmental structures and reorganizing in ways that promote interdisciplinary problem solving, there are still plenty of practical hurdles left to cross. If the focus of the institution is changing, should not the criteria for tenure as well? That’s become an increasingly perplexing question across the university, and there’s still considerable debate about how to best address it.

“It’s been the most difficult part of my job to make that work effectively,” Hodges says.

As would be expected, professors from varied disciplines bring different expertise and different expectations to a tenure debate. The School of Earth and Space Exploration is home to both earth scientists and astrophysicists, and “there are real culture differences between those two,” Hodges says.

While earth scientists might complete one postdoctoral position for two years before landing a junior faculty position, astrophysicists often do two or three “postdocs” before they reach the same point on the faculty ladder. Consequently, an astrophysicist is likely to have a much longer record of publications than someone coming out of earth science. In a truly interdisciplinary school, however, professors from both disciplines would naturally evaluate each other for the awarding of tenure. Helping professors understand and respect the differing expectations of foreign disciplines remains a work in progress, as does reaching common ground on how those differences should inform scholarly expectations for the awarding of tenure, Hodges says.

“It’s a difficult cultural shift with some people, I am sure,” he says. “I don’t mean to imply that every single faculty member we have has no problem with this brave new world. They are skeptical, and they have a long history of academia that’s on their side.”

That long history also includes a mutual understanding of what departments and disciplines mean. So what happens when those boundaries disappear? Will a graduate of a nebulous new program be able to convince more traditional colleagues that he has the chops to hang with the best and brightest in his field? Johnson concedes that some faculty starting their careers in the Fulton Schools of Engineering are asking that very question.

“What I have heard is some of the junior faculty will talk to their adviser at another school who will say ‘I don’t know what’s going on because you no longer are part of an identifiable structure,' ” Johnson says. “The fact that we don’t have something called a chemical engineering department, someone might say ‘It must not be important there.’ ”

But doing away with departments has not meant doing away with degrees. The Fulton Schools still offer all of the ABET-accredited programs they did before reorganizing, because “We felt that it was important for our engineering graduates to have identities and qualit[ies] that are recognized by employers,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail. What has changed, however, is an increasing emphasis on creating new “concentrations” within the traditional degree programs. A student working toward a civil engineering degree, for instance, might now also have a concentration in “sustainable engineering.”

A hallmark of the new approach in engineering is developing curriculums that will encourage students and faculty to help confront a series of “grand challenges” laid out by the National Academy of Engineering. Those challenges include, among others, making solar energy more economical and providing access to clean water.

The approach in engineering is mirrored in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, which is working to establish itself as a force for improving teacher preparedness. That mission has been buoyed by a nearly $19 million gift from T. Denny Sanford, a South Dakota philanthropist and University of Minnesota alumnus. Sanford’s donation created a partnership between Arizona State and Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in urban schools for a minimum of two years.

“TFA makes teaching a profession of choice, and that’s exactly what it should be,” says Mari Koerner, the college’s dean. “Our motto should be, 'If you can’t get into teaching, become a lawyer.' ”

The partnership with TFA, however, may highlight one of the vulnerabilities to Arizona State’s stated desire to solve complex problems: There may be more than one way to solve them. While TFA is not without fervent supporters, critics have charged that it infuses city schools with inexperienced teachers, who work for only a short time at entry-level salaries – squeezing out their more experienced counterparts. TFA officials and school administrators who hire TFA alumni dispute that characterization, but its critics persist.

“TFA isn’t telling us what to do and they’re not going to dictate our academic program,” Koerner says. “I think one of the reasons faculty have not rebelled against this is that we are looking together at how this makes sense for our college. Nothing will be prescribed.”

If faculty are increasingly receptive to new directions – Koerner’s college has been reorganized twice in the last year – it’s no doubt attributable in part to the fact that a critical mass of new professors have come into the institution knowing full well that Arizona State is trying to be a different kind of place. In other words, Crow is building an army of believers one professor at a time, and boy, is he hiring. Indeed, the university raised about $59 million for faculty hiring during Crow’s first seven years as president.

“People are attracted to ASU because they want to do this kind of work,” Koerner says. “I don’t think we’d tap someone on the shoulder and say ‘You know, I think you’re not relevant anymore.’ I think if someone felt irrelevant they would probably leave.”

Those who have bought into Crow’s vision are a special lot, Koerner says, willing to work in a place where they know things could change drastically at a moment’s notice.

“Having an opportunity to define this place is pretty seductive for a lot of people; it is for me,” she says. “What do you have to give up? This is a pretty dynamic place; you have to be able to live with ambiguity.”

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