December 16th, 2011
Arizona is lovely this time and any time of year. The Grand Canyon State is a radically different landscape from the one here in Newfoundland, although stunning rock formation remains a common theme. I took the shot above in Sedona, about two hours north of Phoenix where I was attending the annual meetings of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), the US-based network of grad deans. The site of countless movie shots—from Stagecoach to American Anthem—the northern part of the state boasts some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, red rock formations that reach dramatically out of the valley, eroded masses of iron and sand. By the time I got to Phoenix I was itching to explore.
I would have been tempted to attend CGS this year just for the opportunity to roam around Arizona, but the meetings are always first-class, well worth the jet lag and temporal disorientation. This year was no exception. The conference kicked off with a plenary by the dynamic president of Arizona State University, Michael Crow. Holy change agent! This guy rocked the room. Probably like many, I have pretty low expectations of presidential speeches. So often they are scripted and platitudinous, straight off the assembly line. But Crow wasn’t speaking from a rehearsed flunky-drafted speech. This guy is an original, a charismatic larger-than-life emblem of testosterone. After all, what did I really know about ASU? After listening to Crow I knew a lot more about how he has set about transforming campus culture for the future. Compare the ASU mission statement with the mostly tired and derivative ones of many other institutions, Canadian and American:
To establish ASU as the model for a New American University, measured not by who we exclude, but rather by who we include; pursuing research and discovery that benefits the public good; assuming major responsibility for the economic, social, and cultural vitality and health and well-being of the community.
The model for a ‘New American University’! That’s a pretty grand statement, and how many Canadian institutors would ever dream of inscribing such language in their own missions, but Crow is all about living up to it. He spoke about the need to break out of our disciplinary silos, to re-imagine education and learning for the 21st century, to embrace technologies, and fully understand what today’s student requires for success. He aims to “invent on the fly” a new way of managing a higher-ed public system, dissolving departments and morphing them into theme-oriented fields and schools. He swiftly eliminated engineering and anthropology, math and English and so on—meshing units together, fusing approaches and practices, forcing social engagement and exchange. He emphasized the importance of including the humanities and social sciences in such (ex)changes, not going the way, of, say Florida where these areas of study are being abandoned in the service of false notions of ‘pure’ science and technology. He has dropped the conventional 15-week semester, replacing it with more flexible and appropriate course modules. To hear him speak, it’s now all about the student.
At the coffee break, it was obvious that the 600 or so of us who had listened to Crow, almost all deans of graduate studies, had never heard anything quite like him. Most of us tend to talk (complain) about institutional obstacles to change—boundaries that inhibit interdisciplinarity and out-of-the box approaches to research and teaching. This guy was an inspired example of what it takes to walk the walk. Now all that said, I did wonder what his faculty really think of him. There were hints of resistance. You need a certain ruthlessness, one assumes, to affect such radical change in an institution of some 60,0000 people. One guy from Utah University, just up the highway in Salt Lake City, observed at the microphone that many professors had fled for the hills when Crow launched his campaign to shake up ASU. How did Crow respond? We were happy to get rid of them, he boasted, making room for faculty who really got the new ASU vision. We laughed, if a little nervously. At lunch the next day an ASU staffer told me that Crow actually oversees and often overturns promotion and tenure recommendations, sometimes going right against the positive remarks of lower committees. One thing was obvious—this guy has no tolerance for inadequate or bad teaching, and he has been on a mission to get rid of profs who can’t teach, and whose research records were insufficient. Of course, he wouldn’t have a prayer doing any of this in a collective bargaining environment (Canada).
Regardless of the on-the-ground trouble Crow’s presidency might have stirred up at ASU, his talk set the tone for the rest of our meetings, as many of us in our own presentations kept referring to something he had said, or to his progressive message of transformation. The sheer force of his remarks generated some thinking about what it takes to rock the house, and rock it quickly. Certainly, it takes a strong vision and a charismatic personality to carry it through, and, perhaps inevitably, to produce a lot of collateral damage along the way. To paraphrase John Lennon, we all say we want a revolution. But at what price?