Listening to the parade of presidential candidates repeating safe bromides about how to fix what’s broken in America, I wish I could charter a bus and bring them all to Phoenix to meet a man who is actually fixing things: Michael Crow, the iconoclastic president of Arizona State University.
Politicians talk about being change agents, but Crow is the real deal. In pursuit of his vision of a new kind of university that breaks down traditional barriers, he has replaced 20 of his 23 deans. He has abolished some departments and created new-age interdisciplinary centers such the Biodesign Institute, the Global Institute of Sustainability, and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. He is fighting a daily war against what he calls “Harvard envy and the worship of academic traditions that are “linked to a clonal vision of the past.
I wish the politicians especially could hear Crow’s assault on the stovepipe thinking that keeps America from solving its problems. As he says, we have a performance crisis in this country – sickeningly obvious in our response to Hurricane Katrina and in the chain of errors that spawned the disaster of Iraq. These aren’t isolated problems, he argues, but symptoms of a disease of non-communication: Government agencies can’t speak to each other, much as academic departments can’t speak to each other. We cannot access the expertise we possess.
We tout modern America as a “knowledge society, but we are in many ways an “ignorance society, Crow argues. “Why can’t we execute? he asked at a conference here last week that was co-hosted by ASU. “We execute as if the knowledge we have doesn’t exist – because it is owned somewhere else. We have the information – whether it is about the vulnerability of New Orleans to flooding or the susceptibility of Iraq to violent ethnic conflict – but we don’t act upon it.
America’s politicians behave like a college faculty, constantly warring over petty differences and relentlessly putting self-interest ahead of that of the community as a whole. Our great federal agencies are risk-averse and slow-moving behemoths – better at following rules than at innovating and solving problems. We are “stovepipe America – with each segment of society caught in its own narrow channel while the country’s big problems go unsolved. That’s Crow’s bold diagnosis, and I wish my busload of presidential candidates could hear it.
When Crow took over five years ago, ASU was a monument to the academic status quo. It was growing as fast as Arizona itself – with about 63,000 students, it’s now one of the largest universities in the nation. ASU was struggling to be a top research university but, as Crow says, “it was trapped in a tight box of being good and would never be great. So Crow decided to blow up the existing structure.
Crow gave an inaugural address in 2002 in which he set the immodest goal of turning this sprawling land-grant university into the “new gold standard of American education. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT represented the past – the weight of inherited tradition and compartmented knowledge. He wanted ASU to create something as new and unfettered as the rugged frontier landscape of the Southwest.
Crow has plenty of critics, and not just because he has overturned so many apple carts. Some faculty members argue that in his frenzy for change, he is ruining the slow progress ASU had been making toward becoming a serious research institution. And Crow himself concedes that while a Sustainability Institute sounds good, it won’t get very far if students and faculty don’t master traditional disciplines such as chemistry. But after seeing the innovative work being done at the Biodesign Institute, it’s hard not to agree with Crow that interdisciplinary collaboration is the way to go.
Bad as the situation is now in stovepipe America, it will get worse. The problems of terrorism, climate change and pandemic disease will require every ounce of brainpower the country can muster. As Crow says, the knowledge is there, if only we could dismantle the barriers that prevent access.
America today faces challenges that often seem too big to handle. That’s the measure of our failure: We are a country that is not solving its problems – that cannot summon the will to break down the obstacles to fixing what is wrong. This has to change, or America will enter a period of cyclical decline. If our politicians want to get serious about change, they could take some lessons from a man who has shattered the old template of what makes a great university, and started over.
Syndicated columnistDavid Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.