University of Transformation: Michael Crow at Arizona State University

Adam Kissel

To critique a university president is hazardous. What can one truly attribute to the president when an institution is so large and diverse, has such a long history, and operates through shared governance? Trends in statistics and peer-group comparisons are valuable but hard to tie to the president’s leadership. A million things are said, done, decided, shared, researched, or published every day. Instead of imagining we can understand the whole picture from the beginning, let us start with some details and then widen the focus.

A Fearless Innovator

Arizona State University first came to my attention in 2011 when it strengthened its commitment to free expression, revising its one policy that had unnecessarily restricted student speech. My organization then, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), had written ASU President Michael Crow directly about the policy just a few months earlier, explaining that the policy was inconsistent with ASU’s stated commitment to free speech. “Revising the Advertising and Posting policy and earning a green-light rating from FIRE would establish Arizona State University as a national leader in protecting student rights on campus,” my colleague Samantha Harris wrote. President Crow and his team made the right call, preserving free speech for more than 60,000 students and becoming one of only fourteen institutions with a green light rating from FIRE.

Then Purdue University President Mitch Daniels caught up. Having become president in 2013, he led Purdue to green light status in early 2015. At that time, the University of Chicago, under President Robert Zimmer, had just released a strong statement celebrating free expression “as an essential element of the University’s culture.” Purdue was the first public university, if not the first overall, to join Chicago in publicly committing to “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn” for the entire university community. Upon a new petition from FIRE, ASU also adopted the “Chicago Principles” statement in August 2018.

Getting the words right on paper is valuable, but Arizona State also has lived out its commitment to diversity of ideas and has been a leader in transformative innovation in higher education. This double achievement is no coincidence. Indeed, free inquiry and radical transformation—tolerance for the beneficial forces of creative destruction—work together at Arizona State University under the leadership of Michael Crow.

Diversity of Ideas and Transformative Innovation

While no university is free of intolerant resisters or midlevel administrators who would rather not have responsibility for new projects, President Crow has set a solid example by welcoming a rich diversity of large projects proposed by his faculty, without discrimination regarding the sources of their funding. Professors have successfully garnered seven figure grants from the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF), for instance, to develop high quality projects in political and economic thought as well as criminal justice. I worked at CKF and was responsible for administering some of these grants, which is how I first met President Crow.

ASU has demonstrated such strong support for these projects that the Arizona legislature, seeing the value they bring to students and the community at large, has dedicated millions of additional dollars to help them grow. While some legislators might see these investments as providing a “conservative” balance to what they perceive to be a left leaning university overall, it would be more accurate to say that fundamental ideas about criminal justice, political theory, and economic thought require thorough critique from every direction, not along a facile right–left continuum. To be sure, these faculty projects are designed to provide a rich diversity of discussion from within, not as a contrast or counterweight to the excellent work already occurring across the university. They model the good behavior of serious scholarly debate that marks a world class university and which is lacking at far too many other locations in American higher education.

School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership

ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL), collaborating with the faculty of the Center for Political Thought and Leadership and the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, “connects important intellectual works with lessons learned from great American leaders to inspire and prepare students for leadership in civil society and for public service as statesmen.” In 2016, once the state legislature had appropriated funds for the new school, President Crow had a choice: He could make good on legislative intent to further enrich the university’s offerings through a distinctive program that built on the strengths of the existing centers, or he could let the two centers each go their own way with just a minimal overarching structure.

Because President Crow had already set the precedent of radical transformation at ASU, reorganizing groupings of academic disciplines and schools across the university, the choice was not hard. The president’s team assembled a world class board of advisors from Harvard, Stanford and its Hoover Institution, and Notre Dame who started with the fundamental question of what such a school could be and be for. The result was a “new and nationally unique program preparing the next generation of leaders through the study of great works of civic, economic, political, and moral thought.” Imagine the next Alexander hearing from a contemporary Aristotle, but informed also by the next two thousand years of classics, and imagine what kind of statesman you could get.

This opportunity is in fact what the school communicates to prospective students, under founding director Paul Carrese:

Are you interested in social issues? Concerned that American politics is angry and divisive? Would you like to improve humanity through building consensus and finding a common good? Do you sense that studying historical works about life and politics could provide a sound platform for solving current problems?

Similarly, to excerpt the mission statement written by eminent Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield:

This school seeks to introduce a new level of debate over the large questions of life that always arise. These are questions of value: What is the best form of government? The most efficient and just economy? The good life for an individual? And also basic questions of fact and concept: Is science the only kind of knowledge? Does history have a direction and purpose? Is moral choice a fact or delusion? … As a learning community of faculty and students, this school will approach them in two ways. One way is to look beyond the time and borders of our present society to the great thinkers who have contended for the high status of teachers of humanity . . .

The other way of studying the fundamental questions is to look within ourselves to the American leaders, both intellectual and political, who have inspired us. Here we turn from the human task of thinking for oneself to the civic vocation of contributing to our common life. As citizens our students face the responsibilities of the nation and the world that will be theirs when their time to lead arrives. We need to know what principles and institutions have made us Americans and whether they need to be reformed or reasserted.1

It is hard to imagine more than a handful of today’s American colleges and universities even considering such a transformative vision for American civic leadership. And it is very hard to imagine such a project launching without full support from the institution’s president and provost.

SCETL’s programs have exemplified its vision. To model the virtues of civil discourse across differences of opinion, for example, in October 2017 the school brought Senators John Kyl and Tom Daschle to engage in a “dialogue and debate” on the topic of “Disagreement and Civil Dialogue on American Politics and Civic Culture.” SCETL built on this foundation in January 2018 when Princeton professor Robert George and Harvard professor Cornel West modeled “civic friendship” as they presented a talk together on “Truth-Seeking and Freedom of Expression.” Professors George and West also spoke together in a SCETL course that also models civil disagreement: “Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and the Enduring Debate over American Constitutionalism.”

Most recently, in cooperation with ASU’s schools of journalism and law, SCETL has developed a lecture series and conference on “Polarization and Civil Disagreement: Confronting America’s Civic Crisis.” In November 2018, the project has hosted pollsters “from different sides of the political spectrum” to share their analysis of the 2018 American elections including polls and media reports.

Academy for Justice

In July 2018, Arizona State University announced another major grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, this time to advance the law school’s research into criminal justice through a network of dozens of scholars. The Academy for Justice, as a broad network, had already produced a major report, comprising four volumes of policy relevant academic research, informing policymakers and the interested public on a wide variety of criminal justice issues. The new Academy for Justice would refocus and extend this work as an ASU research center.

One of the many scandals in academic research today is the sharp disconnection between academic research and the non-academic parties who can use it. The supply and demand signals do not reach across the divide very often, and these groups often speak such different languages that when the signals do arrive, they need translation. The Academy for Justice, directed by professor Erik Luna, is one of those relatively rare efforts to bridge the gap.


I have had the opportunity to meet or hear from several members of Michael Crow’s leadership team. I also have met the presidents and leaders of perhaps 200 other colleges and universities for various purposes over the years. What continues to impress me about Arizona State is a senior leadership that demonstrates support for a real and realistic plan for strategic transformation. Not everyone, a couple of levels down, is on board, but I perceive that it is hard for them to maneuver when the top levels are making change.

Too many institutions (many faculty readers will agree) spend inordinate time repackaging what they are already doing in order to create a strategic plan, mostly to do more of the same but with new catchphrases about embracing the future. Meanwhile, ASU has been living out its transformative ideals. The broad themes of ASU’s mission are on the tips of the tongues of senior leaders.

Hear, for instance, University Provost and Executive Vice President Mark Searle at a fall 2018 conference of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), and you will hear statistics showing that ASU is meeting various numerical goals set in cooperation with ASU’s president and board. You also will hear about how ASU has been opening and closing, breaking up and reconstituting academic enterprises on the basis of thoughtful criteria of value, rather than maintaining them on the basis of mere reverence for their historic organization into disciplines, departments, and schools. Not many universities can lay a claim to creative destruction as a guiding principle—and for many, interdisciplinarity is just another catchphrase—but under President Crow, ASU has been advancing strongly in its project to “become a leading American center for innovation and entrepreneurship at all levels.”

Or catch up with R. F. “Rick” Shangraw, Jr., to hear his excitement about integrating the diverse revenue generating functions of the university as perhaps no other has even imagined. In 2010, President Crow reworked the Office of the Vice President of Research and Economic Affairs into the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, headed by Shangraw as senior vice president. Then in 2016, Shangraw and the university created ASU Enterprise Partners, which incorporates efforts of the university and ASU Foundation as well as various entities that generate income through technology transfer and other projects. The idea of a distinct, compartmented “development office” now seems anachronistic.

Or hear the 2015 convocation address of Jonathan Koppell, dean of ASU’s Watts College of Public Service & Community Solutions,2 when he posits that his colleagues and students are focused on community solutions out of the belief that we indeed can answer even our most difficult crises through working and aspiring together. The school, he notes, has “solutions” in its very name.

Don’t accept that the way we have done this in the past is the way we have to do it in the future. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s about not accepting the status quo as the best that we can do . . . Aspire to do something truly transformative, and don’t be satisfied until you achieve that vision—until we achieve that vision.

In the same address, Koppell criticizes the kind of dehumanizing incivility that we see all too often when presuming to judge one another, especially online. Boldness of aspiration should be tempered by empathy and intellectual humility, the respect and self-respect that provide a measure of security in taking risks.

Of course the language in these statements is lofty, befitting a convocation address, but the point here is that another senior ASU leader has focused his remarks on transformative leadership with purpose, right in line with the overall mission of the university.

The Latest: Diversity and Inclusion the Right Way

Arizona State University has offered free online courses since at least 2015, when ASUx launched with courses in Western Civilization (through Medieval Europe), astronomy, and human origins. (Academic credit also is available at a low price.) ASU’s Global Freshman Academy offers online education with the purpose of removing barriers to completing the freshman year. Meanwhile, in 2014, ASU had partnered with Starbucks to provide online courses that the company would pay for. While many other universities pay lip service to “inclusion” and instantiate this goal through the lenses of critical theory and culture wars, President Crow’s university makes inclusion real in an entirely different, nondiscriminatory way.

How many universities, for example, will tell you straight:

We recognize that race and gender historically have been markers of diversity in institutions of higher education. However, at ASU, we believe that diversity includes additional categories such as socioeconomic background, [the usual other protected classes], and intellectual perspective.3

Although the Starbucks partnership met with a bit of criticism from the far left, ASU is a public university with no fear of keeping private, for-profit corporations within its vision of inclusion. In November 2018, ASU announced a partnership with Uber to provide a fully funded college education to Uber’s more dedicated employees. President Crow joined Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in stating that “flexibility is foundational to our two enterprises.”

Yes, ASU is a public university that also is an enterprise under Michael Crow. Technological innovation, inclusion, education, and strategies for retention and completion are mutually reinforcing under the bold strategies led from the top.


Of course, I have my concerns. ACTA notes that ASU does not include meaningful core curriculum requirements in literature, foreign language, U.S. history, or economics for its undergraduates, which earns ASU a grade of “C” in the “What Will They Learn?” database. (Remedy: enroll at SCETL.) Truth be told, two of the three other Arizona schools in the database get worse grades—University of Arizona gets a “D,” and Prescott College gets an “F”—while Northern Arizona University also earns a “C.”

Also, ASU maintains an entire School of Sustainability. The National Association of Scholars has long warned that “sustainability” is a Trojan horse for highly politicized advocacy of economic redistribution and “social justice”—that is, sustainability is not just about the environment but a concept that often involves “three overlapping circles,” including progressive economics and cultural transformation.4 Indeed, the School of Sustainability resides within ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, which is focused on “practical solutions to pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges of sustainability”—the three circles found throughout the website (e.g., free trade with Mexico has led to “a time bomb waiting to go off” environmentally). I am skeptical, to say the least, of such alarmism and related efforts to impose a particular worldview, especially under the guise of an academic enterprise. And the idea of “sustaining” does not fit so well with the idea of “transforming.”

But if you are not watching Arizona State University, you will be unprepared for the new American university, and that is the transformative legacy of President Michael Crow.

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