A Conversation with ASU President Michael Crow

The world is divided into different categories; the rich, the middle class and the poor. Many people have educational  dreams and aspirations, but for some, financial limitation become a hindrance to their success and achievements. Dr. Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, talks about how ASU is passionate about helping people who find themselves in such situations through college.


Eric Sperling: Hello everyone, welcome back to Arizona Achievers, it’s a very special episode today, we’re going to delve into the idea that we are now in the new knowledge economy and talking about the significance of knowledge today, and a lot of you probably recognize the man to my left, Dr. Michael Crow, current President of Arizona State University. Dr. Crow, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Dr. Crow: It’s great to be here.

Eric Sperling: Before we talk about some of the amazing things going on at ASU today because you guys have grown so much, what I didn’t realize and what I want to talk about is that ASU is part of a bigger mission of yours. And as entrepreneurs when we take on something so grandiose, so big, so mission-driven it usually stems from a point of inspiration in our lives, and researching you I found out there was a point in your life when you were full of inspiration, and I think it happened when you were thirteen. Can you tell us about that?

Dr. Crow: You were talking about when I was thirteen, I was working on my eagle scout service project and me and this other kid named Randy, we decided our project was going to be to raise enough, to collect enough food for one family for one year. We lived in Southern  Maryland at the time, my Dad was station at the Patuxen River Air Station in St. Mary’s county. We’d go to the St. Mary’s county welfare department, they gave us a name of a family, and we collected a twenty-four foot you haul truck,  enough food for the six people in the family that could have lasted a year, and we also had toys and everything. So we were so excited, my dad dresses up as Santa Clause, we get the name of the family, we drive out to this spot in the country down a dirt road, down the lane and we end up seeing a tar paper shack, with the dirt floor and a potbelly stove, and it’s 1968, in fact it’s  Christmas eve, 12/24/68. So we’d dropped all these stuff off, and everybody is unbelievably excited. I came from a working-class family, and we didn’t have much ourselves, these people had substantially less than us, I noticed one of the kids was also in my school and I remember him being a smart kid and quiet, and he lives on a Dirt floor. And then oddly enough we go back home after this fantastic, very happy experience of helping this family, and my dad was in the hack from this colored television he had bought, and there we were that night watching the first human being circling the moon, and so sending back live pictures of the moon and pictures of the earth and all kinds of things from outer space on colored television, it was just unbelievable. And so this thing triggered my brain, it began a fissure in my brain saying ‘there is something wrong, how can these two things exist at the same time, how can you have people circling the moon with the most advanced technology, and then other these people leaving with dirt floors and tar paper, with potbelly stoves, and hand pumps for their water’ and this divide became a really important thing for me, and then that was eight grade, five years later I’m in college studying things about this issue; ‘how do you take science and technology and make it more impactful and more meaningful’ so for me this was a whole sequence of events that were triggered by that day.

Eric Sperling: And that’s what ASU in my learning and researching, the model is really evolving to more of the socio-economic issues we have in our society today, and when you talk about some other universities in creating this model, again this is what I found fascinating is, you are trying to get universities away from the idea that exclusivity is what they are using as their basis for excellence.

Dr. Crow: We live in a weird society, and we fought the revolution against the British, we, in theory, freed ourselves from pre-determined class-based outcomes, your parents’ income determined all of your outcomes. We have been attempting to evolve a free and open democracy where anyone can move forward, and you can change your social status, move forward socially, you can have social mobility. Yet at the same time, in the United States, those colleges we think of as the best, turn out to be those that are called the best because they admit the lowest percentage of students that apply. So there is this notion of ‘excellence through exclusion’. So the idea for ASU is if public universities also do that and some have, then we are all doomed because they are just going to repeat this whole notion of class status and class outcomes as being the most important driver of your own individual success. So we decided to go back in time and take the true spirit of America, the true spirit of an American public university and then create something which is unbelievably egalitarian in terms of access to the most fabulous elite faculty that you can put together. So you have a faculty equal to the faculty that I grew up with at the Colombian University in New York City, and can anyone that works hard whether they have the money or not, do they work hard? Do they have access to that faculty and everything they can create? And if you build that, then you have built what an American public university is supposed to be, and since there aren’t many of them, we decided to come up with this new idea called ‘The New American University’ which has that as its central purpose.

Eric Sperling: I have been reading that book about The New American University. So where is ASU now, when you took over in 2002 to where we are now? Give us a proxy report on that.

Dr. Crow: ASU has gone from a solid, regional, public university not very research-intensive, to an absolute progenitor prototype of this new model which means our research is now at the highest level in the country for a school without a medical school. We have got more non-medical research going on, that is a faculty, that is as competitive as the Stanford faculty, the UCLA faculty, certainly the Colombian faculty that I came from. Our student body is representative of the socio-economic diversity of Arizona, it never was before, it is now, we have those two things going on at the same time. We have found a way to break the financial barrier so that anybody can have access, we have found a way to make it work,. We have found a way to scale that is not to cap out our sides, so we have been able to make all of that work and so we are well along on the way of ASU to what I call the prototype, what I call the progenitor of this new kind of American university which is large and scaled and accessible but unbelievably excellent and unbelievably powerful in the kinds of ideas that we generate.

Eric Sperling: And we were just talking about this in our pre-interview discussion, but is that moment when you were thirteen years old, is that still fueling you?

Dr. Crow: It definitely fuels me. I mean I don’t know about the individual psychology of that moment, but certainly the person that I have worked to try to be, which is a person that is synthesized, so I was never interested in mastering one subject. So I am a B student in a hundred and fifty subjects but I won a hundred and fifty subjects, and then I’m an A student in one subject and am an A+ student in one subject, and the A+ subject that I focus on is what do those hundred and fifty mean, and how do we take these hundred and fifty other subjects and make them applicable to actually driving human beings to the highest level of attained potential of what I call potential attainment. And so right now most us are not able to figure out how to drive ourselves forward to this higher level of potential, think of the moon thing as the very high potential, and someone else who is just as smart as the moon guys, who is stuck in a shack with a dirt floor. And so how do you take human beings to this point where we have fewer and fewer human beings doing physical back-breaking physical work, where we have people find ways to express themselves, find ways to be creative, engineer new things, design new things, create new music, create new art, enable people and empower people to reach their full potential. That is the inspiration for me is how to figure that out.



Eric Sperling: Yeah. You just said despite socio-economic status.

Dr. Crow: Yes, sadly. So I was in high school, I graduated from high school, that was in 1973, that was eons ago. My freshman year is the year 69 to 70, I lived Southern Maryland at that time, went to Great Mills High school and in 1970 if you lived in the bottom quarter of family income which I did you had a 7% chance of getting a college degree. Fifty years later, now 2020 you have an 8% chance.

Eric Sperling: That’s amazing.

Dr. Crow: That’s a failure. If you in are in the lowest 10% of academic ability and your family is in the upper quarter of family incomes, meaning you are not that good of a student, you have a 90% chance of getting a college degree. And that’s not just fair, you know, we don’t want to drive fairness by doing crazy things, we want to drive fairness by creating public universities that are accessible to all qualified students. And then if you are not qualified, helping you to get qualified and if you can’t get in, helping you to find a pathway in, and that’s what a public university is supposed to do. Private universities, you can do whatever they want, but a public university needs to do that.

Eric Sperling: And I’ve always been kind of, I gravitate towards the impact side of what you are doing and for us here in Arizona creating a student body of a hundred thousand with the socio-economic classes represented. What kind of impact should that have on us here in Arizona?

Dr. Crow: We are already beginning to see it, we are producing ten times the number of minority graduates in Stein fields than we were just a few years ago. That’s changing employers that want to be here, changing the success of employers that are already here. We are producing large numbers of fantastic college graduates across the whole spectrum of know-how, that’s then creating opportunities in Arizona, that’s creating an ability for us to accelerate economic development. Arizona is already a great place, people want to be here, people want to move here, people want to make things happen here. This then will add energy, and so college graduates have the opportunity to add spice to the overall economy, that’s positive, that helps create opportunities for everybody,. And so what we are doing by being able to do this is that we are accelerating our rate of social and cultural evolution.

Eric Sperling: One of the things you have talked about is this hollowing out of the middle class, we have this routine jobs, those routines that don’t exist anymore, so the knowledge and higher education become much more significant in producing and re-sending somebody back into our ecosystem to help us.

Dr. Crow: Now imagine this, this is the thing about jobs. Imagine that a person could not have to take a job doing just something to earn money, but they could take a job or advance a job or advance a way of doing work that was exactly what they wanted to do, whatever that was. So one of the things that we have to do is figure out a way as the new economy evolves here is how do we empower more people to take advantage of the economy to grow and diversify. It is the case if somebody said we are replacing a lot of waitresses or food service staffs with iPads, and I’m like okay that might be, some restaurants the person may create a wonderful situation for food service workers and I’ve been a food service worker myself. But it may be that a lot of people that are doing that job at some point in their life want to do something else, so then how do they then find the pathway to be able to do that, so the other thing that we are doing at ASU in addition to building this egalitarian, outstanding, world-class research university is we are creating a way in which the university can reach people across the entirety of our society with the learning assets that we have.

Eric Sperling: You mentioned the degree before, and I want to delve back into something in the book, a reference is made to Charles Murray, he is a political scientist, ‘The attainment of a bachelor’s degree has become a driver of class distinctions’ what are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Crow: Unfortunately, there is some truth to the fact that it used to be that there were those that could read and those that couldn’t,. And then there were those that understood simple arithmetic and those that didn’t, and as the economy grew over the many last hundreds of years your education attainment level gave you more opportunity, well that’s not stopping and that’s not going to stop. And so it doesn’t mean that everyone has to go to college that’s not true, it does mean everybody has to finish high school, everybody has to be a prepared learner; and then you can go out, you can teach yourself, you can go to technical school you can go to community college, you can go to the military. There’s all kinds of ways to learn, but it also is the case that there are ways to learn in a university which further empowers your learning, and so it is the case that the bachelor’s degree is becoming more and more of what the high school degree used to be and the high school degree has only been around in a really powerful way for a little more than a hundred years. So these are all new manifestations of learning and so yes it is the case that more and more jobs are going to be requiring that level of education.



Eric Sperling: Let’s talk about universities reassessing their priorities, and you have been doing this for eighteen years now over at ASU. What has the response been like? If the model is starting with Arizona State University, what has the response been like?

Dr. Crow: So if the new model, what we call fifth wave, The New American University Model, response has been interesting. So there’s lots of people that think that we’re a virus or a fad or something like that, neither of those things are true. Hundreds and hundreds of schools have been very interested in what we are doing, the academic community has elected us the most innovative university in the country for each of the last five years, that means they are noticing what we are doing. There are emulators out there, Perdue University which is a well-established land grant university scale in Indiana, they have worked now to scale to move forward. There are some emergent scalable large impact, high impact, public universities that are emerging, Penstate is already there, St Maryland is already there, and some others are thinking about it, central Florida in Orlando and some others. And so we are seeing some movement down this part of creating a new kind of public university, so there is a lot going on, there is a lot of people paying attention to what’s going on at ASU.

Eric Sperling: What were you eluding to with the virus?

Dr. Crow: It turns out that academia is in some ways similar to religious organizations and that is they are Philio-pietistic: they adore tradition, and tradition becomes really really important. Tradition is fine, and we certainly have traditions at ASU, we certainly buy off on basic tenets of free and open discourse, academic discovery and scientific method and the way theories are evolved we buy off on all of that, but it’s not the case that we think that there is one way to do something. And so we have decided that scale and diversity can actually work and lots of places don’t believe that scale and diversity can work the way that we are talking about, I mean social diversity.



Eric Sperling: Sure. And we got to talk about the student loan, quote and unquote crises, if there is one, if there isn’t one, I’d love to hear on your thoughts, do we have a crisis?

Dr. Crow: I have said publicly and I will say again, we have don’t have a student-loan crisis, what we have is a college completion crisis. So if you complete your degree from a reputable college, or a community college, or technical school, you have a very good chance of being well within a  fantastic investment return portfolio where you going to take whatever you might have borrowed, if that was within certain limits, and pay it back reasonably and get a good return. So let’s say ASU average return is between 12% and 14% return on investment for your investment in your college education per year over your lifetime. That’s a massive return.

Eric Sperling: Right.

Dr. Crow: And so we have about 40% of our students graduate with no debt, of the students that graduate with debt they have about $23,000 of average debt, that’s a price of a souped up Honda Civic with a nice radio. So that’s ‘okay’ investment. Now, it turns out though that there are cases that people talk about that they borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to college. And we are not sure what that is sometimes, and we think the reform should be that college-related debt should be used for college.

Eric Sperling: It’s not always going to that.

Dr. Crow: It’s sometimes going to apartments and to buying cars and all kinds of other things and so we’re like no live on campus, ride public transportation, take a bike that kind of thing. Now that’s not possible for everyone, but it is for many people and so is there a debt crisis? We have to get people that have debt that didn’t finish college to finish, and that’s what we really need to focus on.



Eric Sperling: You know? You are here, you are one of the community leaders like I said there is not this exclusive panel of community leaders, but I think you would be looked at somebody who is definitely on that panel. Is there tips, are there anything, we’re always looking for that edge as entrepreneurs, what it takes to succeed, what it takes to build something as grandiose as The New American University, to take on an idea like that knowing what a big project that is. What are your philosophies or your thought processes when it comes to that?

Dr. Crow:  You know, I am a big believer that you work hard every day, you wake up the next day, and you don’t carry any of the negative baggage of the previous day, or the previous week. And that if you that and you have what I call a theory of victory and your theory of victory is what are you attempting to achieve? If you are working on something and you don’t know what you are attempting to achieve, now the theory of victory maybe “I need to paint this room,” and the theory of victory might be “I need to fix house up” but it’s still a theory of victory. So what is victory? And if you are working towards victory, and you are taking a fresh look at that every day rather than bemoaning your losses, or bemoaning your pain, or bemoaning your travail the day before, and I know they are some exceptions to this. But rather than on a regular basis, focusing your energy on driving towards that victory every day I just find that it makes it a lot more fun, a lot more exciting. It is also, it is a little beat of beat the clock and so we each have in our average working life about twenty-two to twenty-five thousand days of our average adult working life in the United States to do everything that we want to accomplish. Now if you start thinking about that, if you think that’s a large number of days, that isn’t, that’s a small number of days. And so what you want to do is you don’t want to waste any of them if you can avoid that, and I know I am generalizing here, but you want to take each day to the old Latin phrase Carpe diem, you want to seize that day and use that day to advance your individual identity. What I mean individual identity is, you and I met today, we’ve come out of different families, we’re the product of hundreds or ultimately thousands  of generation that have produced us; we’re the latest iteration of those generations. We have one life, one opportunity to make its distinctive outcome known, whatever that happens to be and you need to be devoting your energy every single day to that purpose.

Eric Sperling: Oh I love that and I’m going to leave that there.  What you’re saying is it’s not like waking up every morning like Ebenezer Scrooge and opening up the windows but you gotta have that mindset that it is a new day and you can take it. 

Dr. Crow: Absolutely. New day, every day, your theory of victory of what you are working toward, and then for young people when I talk to them I say “visualize where you want to be in ten years, exactly, where you want to be living, what you want to be doing. And if you can find the way to focus your energy, you have a high probability of getting there.”

Eric Sperling: Dr. Michael Crow, thank you so much for stopping by. We will see you next time on Arizona Achievers.

Final Thoughts:

A major problem presents itself in the educational system when someone with the desire to get a college education doesn’t have the access. ASU wants to actualize a college graduation for anybody who has the drive and eliminate the financial roadblocks.