Looking at Arizona State University today, with the largest student body in the United States, it's difficult to imagine that it began before statehood as the territorial "normal school," or teachers college. It didn't become a university until 1958, over the intense objections of the University of Arizona, which still considers itself The University, although ASU has eclipsed it in many ways. ASU now bills itself as "one of the premier metropolitan research universities in the nation, an institution of international scope, committed to excellence in teaching, research, and public service." The reality is somewhat different and rooted in the history of the state and the Salt River Valley.
Some sixty thousand souls resided in all of Arizona Territory when the UofA and the future ASU were established. It was frontier wilderness with the settlers scratching out a hard living in mining, ranching and farming. Aside from the occasional big copper strike -- Jerome, Bisbee -- people were poor. The railroads were only beginning to be built across the vast expanses of deserts, mountains and forests. That territorial leaders created these schools was an act of heroic vision (aided in UofA's case by the federal land-grant program). Later the Progressive state constitution would mandate that Arizona provide a college education for every qualified citizen.
But this rough country was also generally suspicious of colleges, whether from cowboys mistrusting the utility of the endeavor, to the big mining companies wanting cheap labor. Capital was scarce outside of the mines and railroads, controlled by eastern financiers only interested in extracting profit from the land. There were no Arizona Rockefellers or Carnegies who built fortunes, however ill-gotten, that would eventually fund world-class universities. People were scarce. Just before statehood, Tempe's population was little more than 1,400, fighting to make the desert bloom, sweating through summers without air conditioning. No wonder the state's elite, such as Carl Hayden, went to college in California.
Later, population wasn't a problem, as the state and especially Phoenix ballooned after 1950. But the universities never kept up. There was the tension between a constitutional mandate to provide inexpensive education and a tightfisted Legislature. Some of this was a holdover from the past, especially when rural state senators held huge power prior to the "one-man-one-vote" Supreme Court decision. Increasingly, it was ideology, which married the myth of the Western rugged individualist to the beginnings of today's nihilistic anti-tax, anti-education Republican Party. Even though Arizona was adding a million people a decade -- 40 percent population growth in the 1990s alone -- it never translated into the funding to create real greatness at the universities (NAU got the moniker in 1966). The stewards of the '50s and '60s that had worked so hard to bring new industries in Arizona failed on this count. With so much money to be made in real estate, what was the point?
Arizona never built a multi-tiered university system such as was found in Ohio. That state has everything from giant, well-regarded Ohio State University, to the superb "public ivies" of Miami and Ohio U, to the general education centers such as Kent State and Wright State. Arizona never even tried. Arizona never built a University of North Carolina, one of the finest in the world, and this in a conservative state (nor did any steward build the equivalent of a Duke). It never built a University of Wisconsin, another world-class institution. Instead, Arizona kept the basic higher-ed bones laid down when it was a territory with a smaller population than today's ASU. It added programs and money — but never enough to keep up with the growth in student population or rising demands to be competitive.
And that was before tax-cutting became the guiding ideology, plus the standard conservative hatred of "liberal academics." Thus, for a moment in the early 1980s, UofA seemed poised to become another University of Texas — an average football mill transformed in a few years into an outstanding institution and a critical part of the state's economic competitiveness (something the righties miss when they talk of Texas as a business leader). But the Arizona Legislature began cuts. And cuts. On and on. In good times and bad. What most Arizonans don't realize is that these cuts have never been restored. Arizona universities get a small and diminishing amount of money from the general fund, and they also have the misfortune to have small or no endowments. After all, the elite still send their children to college out of state. And most "Arizonans" today have no allegiance to the state, its history or its institutions. "For Michigan! We cheer for Michigan!" The few exceptions, such as Ira Fulton, were never enough to keep up with rising demands and shrinking revenues.
The universities have also been jealous of their power. ASU probably should have been broken up long ago. UofA has too often been against anything that would benefit ASU. Thus Phoenix was for years the largest city with no medical school. In a perverse way, these rivalries worked along with the rising tide of Kookocracy to, as the therapists say, self-sabotage. Elevating one or more community colleges might work, but the dilemma returns: the Legislature simply won't support higher ed. Thus, the universities must take in huge student populations just to pay the bills.
Meanwhile, competing universities or colleges never arose, even as Phoenix became the nation's fifth-largest city and the nation's 13th-largest metro. None of its peers have so few universities. It's said the era of university-building in America is over. That's odd, considering how rich today's wealthy have become; it's competitive suicide considering China is building hundreds of universities. But Phoenix seemed to lack the magnetism to even attract a new campus of an eastern private university, or a Brigham Young South. Nothing there but retirees, land plays, and endless subdivisions? Plucky Grand Canyon College became something else. The "University of Phoenix" is not a university (although it paved the way for using federal student loans to enrich shareholders, no matter whether most students ever finish) -- these places were once called business colleges, and that was all they were. They are not centers of liberal education designed to build well-rounded citizens and independent analytical thinkers. So once again, population growth has not only failed to deliver its promised benefits — it has actually been a drag.
By the 1990s, it became apparent that universities can be major economic engines, through research, technology transfer to the private sector and luring talent. Both ASU and UofA made valiant efforts, but the hostility of the Legislature was worse then ever. The greatest lost opportunity is the empty gravel of the Phoenix Biomedical Campus. Still, in such a limited economy, ASU especially looms large: downtown Phoenix and south Scottsdale looked to it to revitalize their areas.
Michael Crow arrived in the early 2000s amid a wave of optimism. I think Crow honestly thought he could figure out a way to thread the needle and create "the new American university," including finding new funding to become less dependent on the Legislature. He's succeeded in many areas, and built on the quiet accomplishments of his predecessor, Arizona native Lattie Coor. Maybe if the Great Recession had not brought Phoenix to its knees, more would have been done. I've generally been a Crow fan, although I know his welcome among many at ASU long ago wore out. But one person can only do so much. And the demand to accommodate a huge and growing student body, at a "reasonable" tuition, with so little public help, is a tightening vise.
Thus, ASU, like Phoenix, may be one of the "largest" universities, but it doesn't rank in the top ten in excellence. I say this not to deride ASU, but as a reminder that the "metrics" driving the boosters have no connection to a quality future.
Both UofA and ASU have many fine programs and some excellent faculty. Generations of professors and administrators have fought against tremendous odds. They remain centers of promise. But the combination of Phoenix's depression and ever-more-extreme politics make the outlook murky. All over America, communities are falling apart, not only from the profligacy of the Bubble Makers, but from the demand that ever more money go to the few. All over America, top institutions are fighting just to hang onto the gains they made. The deficit must be cut, to keep Goldman Sachs from shorting us in world markets, to maintain our military adventures. Meanwhile, the future shifts to Asia, and I suppose the powers-that-be in Phoenix hope they can market retirement villas to wealthy Chinese.
Enjoy the entire Phoenix 101 archive here.