Universities must adapt to fight ‘viral attack,’ ASU president says

ASU Crow
ASU Crow
ASU President Michael Crow spoke before a full house last week as the final speaker in President John Haeger’s Speakers Series

Michael Crow has a Ph.D. in public administration, but the way he talks you’d think he has an M.D.

Crow, the 16th president of Arizona State University, is developing a remedy for the virus that has been attacking American universities for half a century.

“The genetic code of the American university has been under a severe viral attack for 50 years,” Crow said. “That virus is thinking like an agency or unit of government. We’ve allowed something into the structure that runs counter to the genetic code.”

Higher education’s genetic code—teaching, discovery and learning—dates back 2,400 years, Crow said, but the obsession with politics, the legislature and funding is threatening many universities’ very existence.

On the other hand, success comes when universities think of themselves as enterprises, responsible for their destinies.

“Your organization is the only entity responsible for your fate,” Crow said. “All others are ones you interact with and strive to obtain resources from. They are allies and part of your environment, but the fate of the institution is sealed by those who decide what the institution should be.”

Crow was the fourth and final speaker in NAU’s 2005-06 President’s Speaker Series. He spoke April 19 before a full house in Ashurst Auditorium.

He listed both the symptoms and the treatment for genetic code virus.

The first symptom is “make-do logic.” Universities must work with what they have, which puts the focus and internal and external politics. “The legislature is irrelevant to the tasks of the staff,” Crow said. “They can become obsessively focused on something that is largely irrelevant to success.”

Another symptom is the “conserver mode,” in which universities take no risk and fail to have an understanding of what they’re trying to achieve.

Perhaps the most threatening symptom is the failure to adapt. “Most institutions have coping mechanisms,” he said. “But they have to be adaptive to a changing environment.”

The cure, in Crow’s opinion, is to reconceptualize the university as an enterprise, responsible for its own destiny. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t constraints,” he said. “It means what position you want to put yourself into for advancing the university. Are you negotiating as a supplicant?”

He recommended shifting to “an investment model.” Approach the Legislature, businesses, potential donors as investors. “Make your case,” he said. “If you invest, here is the return we will give you. Without an investment, you can’t expect a return.”

The same approach is true for tuition, he said. “Tuition is an investment in a lifetime.”

Crow also suggested universities recapture their identity: What are they? Why are they there? What are their principles and values?

Once that is determined, universities can focus on differentiation. “Focus on anything but becoming Generic State University,” he said. “That is the path to destruction. Differentiation is how we prosper. Don’t change everything. Find pockets of limited differentiation and empower them.”

His final bit of advice is for universities to find a way, and quickly. “If you don’t know how to speed up, you can’t attack the virus,” he said. “The ones that make it are the ones that defeat the virus.”