When Michael Crow became president of Arizona State University in July 2002, the watch began almost immediately: How quickly would he use ASU as a springboard to a bigger and better job? It hasn't happened. Crow said he had a ten-year plan for "the new American university" and he has been as good as his word. Crow was one of the three people that progressive Arizonans vested their faith in during those hopeful years. Janet Napolitano played defense against the Kookocracy, but abandoned the governor's office to become President Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security with little left behind as a legacy. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon suffered a lost weekend of a second term, badly downgrading any assessment of the man in full. I always thought it was a sign of Arizona's unhealthy lack of private-sector stewards that all three stars were on the public payroll, but such was the case. Only Crow, to many the least likely, stuck and kept faith.
Crow was dealt a bad hand, if a very good salary: The Legislature had been cutting general-fund appropriations to the universities since the 1980s and was virulently anti-education. The state constitution mandated that ASU, especially, take virtually every qualified in-state student without giving it the means to pay for this obligation. The university had grown into a gargantuan thing. It had few friends at the capitol as opposed to, say, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Yet even Crow's critics must admit he played this hand masterfully. It wasn't long after his arrival that the UofA, which always considered itself "the university," was enviously muttering, "We wish we had a Michael Crow."
The vision of a New American University was buttressed around finding new revenue. I learned this early, when Crow asked me how ASU could be of more help in illuminating the economy. I sent him a list of some 30 indicators that were not tracked in the echo chamber of population growth and construction permits. This ended up in the economics department where the mandate was to produce it, and find a way to sell it.
Without Crow, there probably wouldn't be a downtown Phoenix campus, which has been essential to both the revival of the central core and the success of light rail. He got the city to pay for much of it, but the city got at least as good a bargain. Rather than jettisoning the far-away and arguably distracting "campus" at the old Williams Air Force Base, Crow gave it a mission as a Polytechnic. This was part of a broader effort to give the campuses outside Tempe more focused missions. The old Los Arcos Mall site in south Scottsdale, which nobody loved and was left a wasteland, found a friend in Michael Crow, who turned it into SkySong, an entrepreneurial hub and, not surprisingly, another source of money. If there was a promising vacuum in this city of vacuums, Crow was likely to fill it. That he could talk the language of developers made him seem understandable and popular among the local-yokel bigs.
But the other aspect of the New American University was welcoming large numbers of students, including a special emphasis on minorities and low income people, and offering them a good university education. Although he came from Columbia, Crow is no swell. When I knew him he drove a car worthy of an adjunct instructor. He "loathes" — his word — elitism in higher education. In naming him one of America's top 10 university presidents, Time wrote, "the number of low-income Arizona freshmen enrolling each year has grown nearly ninefold and the population of minority students has jumped 62 percent." Crow also lured many top faculty, yet another part of his vision that has received too little attention.
None of this came without broken eggs. Crow is exceptionally demanding and won't brook failure, especially from those in high positions. He can be brusque. Although quite charming and witty in private, he can seem stiff and aloof in some public situations. He is usually the smartest man in the room; he gives the sense that he is always the smartest man in the room. After the gentle presidency of Lattie Coor, who deserves much credit for starting ASU on its upward momentum, Crow was like an F5 tornado. Some faculty members felt pushed aside, a few even persecuted — and ASU never had strong faculty governance to push back against a president as is the case in many universities. Yet the dire predictions of death to the fine and liberal arts, because they couldn't become profit centers, never came true. Much of the anti-Crow reaction of the early years has faded. I know professors outside engineering and science who swear by Crow.
His tenure has required peace with the Real Estate Industrial Complex. While ASU's sustainability efforts are sincere, they also involve dreams of cool concrete and other techno-wonders that would allow metro Phoenix to keep doing what it's been doing for decades, rather than encouraging fundamentally different arrangements and showing how they can actually be better, more livable. ASU folks flog the "Sun Corridor," wherein 8 million people will "live" in single-family-detached-house-single-occupancy-car-trip bliss. Crow also made a rare PR blunder in declining to give President Obama an honorary degree. Although my frustrations with Mr. Obama now make me think Crow was right, the decision brought ridicule to ASU at a moment when it should have shone in the national spotlight. This move was so contrary to Crow's usual instincts as to be noteworthy for that alone. As for ASU athletics, rooting for the Sun Devils requires suffering, no matter who is president.
A few posts back, commenters had a lively discussion about ASU. My take: A very good university — say, a University of Wisconsin — is to be found inside the enormity that is Arizona State University. It was improving under Coor and has made major leaps forward under Crow. If one believes in such rankings as US News, ASU places with a number of programs. The one disappointment: ASU is not a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, whose 59 institutions that constitute the elite of research universities. The University of Arizona was admitted in 1985.
But overall, Crow deserves top grades. His achievement is all the more impressive in being carried out in perhaps the most hostile legislative environment to higher education in America.