[Transcript] Arizona State University President Michael Crow: How the university adjusted to the pandemic


Fed Communities Staff

Michael Crow

Hi, Michael Crow here, President, Arizona State University. Happy to have this opportunity to get together and spend a few minutes talking about, basically, the pandemic and everything related to post-secondary education and so forth and so on. 

Let me first start by saying that this has been one of the most interesting years. In the last 30 years, I’ve had two jobs. I was Deputy Provost at Columbia University in New York City and Chief Research Officer there, and a faculty member there. And then, the last 18, almost 19 years, I’ve been President here at Arizona State University in a very significant transformation project. This last year has been the most challenging, not just because of the pandemic, but because of now seeing with clarity the level of complexity that we’re going to be facing going forward, the level of need and demand and social complexity in our broader society, the level of all of the issues that we’re dealing with and all the things that we’re working with and working toward. 

And so, just to put all of that into perspective, what I can tell you sitting here in March of 2021 is that this last year has been a fantastic opportunity for learning, for humbling, for rethinking almost everything. I mean, for instance, I mean, obviously, the design of things like our public health schools and other parts of our academic enterprises are in need of serious reconceptualization and reconsideration. Our preparedness either in people, production, learning outcomes, training, technology, tools, decision making, interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary logic. If we think of the pandemic as an indicator of what lies ahead with global climate changes, global climate change complexities, which it is an example of and, in fact, a part of, what we can see is that we’re not ready and we’re not ready in spite of being capable of designing, deploying, messenger engineered ribonucleic acid vaccines, which are unbelievable. I mean, that breakthrough by itself is the scale of the Apollo project. I mean, and that’s barely even understood in our society, but I’ll come back to those things in just a second. 

You can’t think about the impact of the pandemic on post secondary education from a financial perspective or an economic perspective or a competitiveness perspective without first thinking about the situation where we were in 2020 and, think of 2020, I’ll give you a 2020 sit-rep, situation report, on how higher education is doing. And so, the answer is exceedingly well for a narrow band of people in our population, okay for lots of other people, and terribly for most people. 

What I mean by that is the following. Since 1980 or so, give or take, the US has spent approaching a trillion dollars on Pell Grants. Those are not loans, grants to people to help them to go to college. A very generous government, a very generous society, helping people to go to college. Only people that go, don’t graduate. More than half the people that have received the Pell Grants have no diploma and no degree. More than half the people that have taken out… In fact, the vast majority of people that have taken out student loans have no diploma and no degree. In fact, the vast majority of people that go to college in the United States and start college in the United States have no diploma and no degree. The only industrialized nation on the planet for which that is the case. 

What does that mean? I don’t know if I can give you the complete explanation of that, but I can tell you that, in 2020, we were probably into our 40th year of having peaked our broad complex national “system” or enterprise of higher education. The sit-rep is that we’ve also got a terrible set of social outcomes that are very unevenly… Terrible, because they’re very unevenly distributed, that is that the social outcomes are very unevenly distributed. 

When I was in high school in 1970, I was a freshman in high school, I came from a working class family. Back then, about 7% of kids from working class families, bottom quarter of family incomes, were able to go to college and graduate. 50 years later, 2020, wow, it’s all the way up to 8% or 9%, meaning no change except the population in that same timeframe doubled or something like doubled. And so, we’ve got a deep, deep, deep set of issues. We have high concentrations of educational attainment in the upper half of family incomes and low concentrations of educational attainment in the lower half of family incomes. 

Now, you might think of that as causal. It’s not causal. It’s correlated, but not causal. It turns out that it’s not causal because we have so many people that are starting and not finishing. And so, we’ve got as our sit-report then, situation report, sit-rep, we’ve got poor social scale outcomes, massive investments with insufficient return. We’ve got inadequate social mobility being driven by educational attainment, and that includes high school attainment. That includes quality high school attainment. That includes all things related to educational attainment. Therefore, that has resulted in something that you all being connected in one way or another to the Federal Reserve must acutely be aware of, and that is in the 330 million people, give or take, that live in the US, we have three populations of 110 million people that partly derivative of this lack of performance of post-secondary education, are living not in the old notion of Michael Harrington’s two nations or two countries. It’s three countries. 

In the top 110 million, there are no negative indicators at all. We have expanding lifespan like never before, expanding wealth like never before, expanding personal income like never before, expanding educational attainment like never before. Again, causal versus correlated in the middle group of people, the middle 110 million people, which is obviously larger than any country in Europe. We have status quo. We’re not seeing significant wage growth. We’re not seeing significant lifespan outcomes. We’re seeing steady progress, steady movement forward, but not huge progress. And then, the bottom 110 million people, and we all need to be acutely aware of this, at least based on our data and our analysis, there are no positive incomes. Lifespan is deteriorating. Educational attainment is going down and income is going down for a lot of people in that group, going down. And so, you all might look at this a little bit different than we look at it in the world that I come from, but this is a very, very stark moment, 2020 pre-pandemic. 

And so, let me say one other thing that we’ve got going on relative to higher education, which will then affect how I give you my analysis of the impact of the pandemic on post-secondary education. We live in a bifurcated higher education system of thousands of institutions operating across the United States in which they’ve divided themselves into two basic types, excellence only and access only. Excellence only institutions believe that their role in society is to produce the best and the brightest, which they do, “to produce new knowledge and new ideas through research intensity”, which they do, and to limit access, that is to manage their institutions through some form of scarcity which, as you know as economics oriented people or economists, drives up price, drives up price infinitely, particularly with no technological replacement and then creates a situation in which all the other schools, which is the vast majority of schools, then have been relegated to the non-exclusive admission environment and to the non-discovery environment. 

That means then, therefore, that they are focused on access and they have been, in a sense, relegated to that setting and that setting is grossly underperforming. Declining graduation rates. Declining quality in a lot of places in a lot of ways. Declining enrollment, even during the pandemic in the community college arena and in many of the state colleges also. And so, we’ve got this terrible situation where we have an underperforming overall higher education system, and then bifurcation in our higher education system where we have ultra high performing exclusive scarcity oriented and exclusionary oriented private and public colleges and private and public research universities. And then, we have everybody else, which is underperforming. And so, having said that, then here comes the pandemic. 

The pandemic then arrives and creates massive disruption for the delivery of the full immersion model of higher education and this massive disruption is such that it accentuates a key element in the higher education system, a key cultural element in the higher education system across most of them, and that is their anti-technology bias. And so, one of the reasons that we’ve seen continuing ongoing and significant price increases for access to higher education, both public and private, is that there’s no technological base. In Bamal’s old law, there’s no way to actually assess or judge what the actual cost of the service might be because there’s no logical replacement opportunity as there is in other areas of the economy. Thus then, in education and healthcare and a few other areas, prices rise infinitely unless controlled. 

And so, we’re in that situation now, and it made things particularly acute in terms of the pandemic because the pandemic is a driver, a portender, an indicator of the complexity that lies ahead. Complexity at the scale that our society is operating can only be managed with technology. There’s no other pathway to manage complexity, either complexity of scope, complexity of scale, complexity of diversity, complexity of speed, complexity of global competition. All those things require technological inputs at one level or another. 

This anti-technology bias then confronts in the pandemic, a sector not in general particularly or acutely capable of injecting or taking on technological assets quickly enough to be more agile. What has this meant? It has meant that in the pandemic, there have been very differentiated responses. And so, what I’ll do here is break away a little bit about ASU, where we are, what our model is, where we’ve been going, and then how we’ve responded to the pandemic. And then, I’ll come back and talk about the pandemic itself more broadly in the sector. 

Arizona State University is an old teacher’s college, just as University of California at Los Angeles was before it became UCLA, just as UC Santa Barbara was before it became its present research university type. We grew up in a place that grew very, very rapidly. By 2002, when I arrived here, we were a standard issue, generic public university operating on a regional basis, trapped somewhere between the access model and the research model. I, basically, set out the notion or the idea or the challenge of could you build a technologically driven, technologically empowered, high speed, highly agile, adaptive public university that could be both scaled from a size perspective, scaled from a diversity perspective, scaled from an efficiency perspective and very research intensive? Almost 19 years into this, the answer is yes. 

We’re producing four times the graduates doing five times the level of research. We have 20 times the number of learners. We have five times the revenue that we have. Almost no support from the government whatsoever. We’re operating is what we call a public enterprise. Doubling our four year graduation rate. Our research activity now without a medical school is in the top six of all non-medical school universities in the country, with more non-medical research going on here than at my old school at Columbia, than at Stanford, than at USC, than at all but just a handful of schools in the entire country, meaning this idea of scale access and diversity with faculty excellence and research productivity can be merged into a new model. We built that model. 

We call that model the new American university. It has a fundamental premise, a charter. The charter of our institution is derivative of our democratic purpose and our democratic intent. It starts by saying that we will build the institution around the idea of inclusion versus exclusion and the measured success of our students, which means the university is then derivative of a model which is student centric and which is non exclusionary. 

Secondly, that we’ll do research that not only benefits the academy or the stock of knowledge or the scientific portfolio that’s out there, or portfolios, but we’ll also do our research with the conscious focus on helping our community to be more successful. And then, the last part of our charter is that we’ll actually be responsible for something other than just being responsible to the abstract nature of academia itself. 

The charter of ASU is such that it becomes our driving force. We’ve changed all of our outcomes as a function of that. Our student body is representative of the entire diversity, socioeconomic diversity, of our society. Our ethnic diversity is as significantly diverse as our society. All of our performance indicators changed, everything changed. One of the things that we did, and this goes to this notion of where we’re headed, is we embrace technology as our friend. We have 300 educational technology partners that are integrated into the way that we’re operating the university. 

Then, along comes the pandemic, and we’ve been open every day since the pandemic… Actually, just about exactly a year ago when the global pandemic was announced and the national emergency was announced. And so, we’ve been open every minute of every day, 24/7, just adjusting, adjusting, adjusting, adjusting. We have thousands of research groups, all of which we’re able to maintain their ongoing effort. In fact, we have hundreds of new projects just related to the pandemic. We designed, built and deployed, in the middle of the pandemic, a new saliva based high speed robot testing system. We’ve tested 800,000 plus people from that. We’ve built other systems, other tools, daily epidemiological reports. 

We graduated the largest number of graduates spring semester 2020, the largest summer school we ever had in the summer of 2020. Also, fall semester 2020, largest we ever had. Largest number of fall semester graduates that we’ve ever had. Spring semester 2021, where we are now, largest ever. Largest in our history. Most diverse in our history. Demand for the institution has never been greater. We deployed, we Zoomized, 1000 classrooms. We spent millions of dollars, technologically enhancing our already greatly technologically capable institution. 

We’ve seen both on campus enrollment, what we call full immersion enrollment, accelerating. We’ve seen our online enrollment accelerate even more dramatically. We birthed a new system of learning called ASU Sync, where we operate in a modality where we have people Zooming into classes, faculty and students. We see this as a whole new way of learning. We’ve made the most significant investments in new advanced areas of teaching and learning since the pandemic started, including fully immersion, avatar driven, virtual reality based learning for complex courses in science and just getting everybody all excited for science. 

We’ve partnered with a new company called Dreamscape Immersive in Los Angeles. By the spring semester of 2022, you’ll be able to take biology 1801 and 1802, which is introductory biology, for a year for college biology. And then, we can take that down into high schools where you, as an avatar, go to an alien zoo orbiting a planet 12 light years away, and then you become the scientist in that alien zoo, designed by Steven Spielberg of all people, where you learn evolutionary biology, the core of biology, biological systems, food webs, life webs, life cycles. Everything, you learn all of that in this new modality, which then has an unbelievable application in terms of scale, in terms of enhancement, in terms of learning outcomes. 

We’re then matching that with something else that we’ve been working on both prior to the pandemic and then now during the pandemic, which is this notion of adaptive learning, which is highly individualized, personalized, computationally driven, robot driven tutoring for hundreds of courses that we’ve put in place, including the entire undergraduate biology curriculum. What that then is allowing us to do, just to put this into perspective, is to have people being able on campus, fully immersion students, to double major in biology easily while they’re also studying music or art or political science or finance or whatever it is that they’re doing. And then, also to offer a tremendous pathway to online full immersion avatar driven degrees. And so, we’ve got all this that’s going on. 

Our response to the pandemic has been one of considering ourself to be maximally adaptive, maximally innovative, maximally creative going forward. Now, that’s the same as some other schools, but not most other schools. And so, let’s spend a few minutes talking about the impact of the pandemic on post-secondary education. 

First, before any of you out there in the private sector or any of you out there in the Federal Reserve sector, Federal Reserve institutions, or around those institutions, you need to understand that higher education isn’t like any other sector. Oxford and Cambridge are hundreds and hundreds of years old, 800 to 1000 years old. We have universities in Bologna and Uppsala and Paris and other places that are literally a 1000 years old. There’s universities and colleges in the religious spaces, in the Muslim world, that are 1200 years old or older in some cases. It’s an institution that has or a type of institution that has a long life. 

In the US there are, for instance, five waves of new institutions being born here in the United States, all of which still exist. Wave one, Harvard, Princeton, before they became research universities, Columbia, before they became research university, but Bowdoin College, Amherst College, Colorado College, Occidental College. And then, more recently, Bennington College or Olin College. Basically, small faculty centric, Greek academies built in the United States. 

The second wave is the emergence of public institutions, including some public sector Greek academies long ago in Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. And then, ultimately, community colleges that came out in the 1960s and teachers colleges that came out in the 1880s throughout the United States. All of that infrastructure, all of those schools, are still there. The third wave in the United States was the emergence of the land grant idea during the Civil War, which was the building of problem oriented, solving problem, solution oriented institutions, one in each state with a grant of land from the federal government. Those are still running. 

And then, in the fourth wave, also a uniquely American thing was the emergence of powerhouse research universities. Some of the first wave schools, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Penn, became research universities. Some of the second wave, Virginia, Michigan, became research universities. Some of the third waves, Illinois, UC Berkeley, became the fourth wave research universities. 

And then, some fourth wave research universities, in fact the progenitors, were built from whole cloth. Hopkins, Stanford and Chicago, all driven by philanthropy, all between 1876 and 1900. And then, the fifth wave, which ASU really represents, is the emergence of a new technology driven, highly scaled, research intensive national service oriented university, which is focused on scale. 

What does all of that mean then relative to the pandemic? Well, all of those sectors reacted, all of those waves of universities, all reacted differently. Community colleges are in wave two, late emergence in wave two. And so, the pandemic going forward and what will its impact be on post-secondary education? One, I think there will be more networking and consolidations. Two, there will be a stronger embrace of technologies going forward. Three, there will be an acceleration of the rate of failure of institutions, and they all fail slowly within this sector, but the rate of failure will accelerate. 

I think that we’re going to see new kinds of leagues emerge, leagues not related to sports but leagues related to subjects, related to disciplines, related to problem solving. I think we’re going to see a reckoning at some point about the lack of performance in higher education, the movement for free public higher education or free college, as some people talk about it. That’s not going to be, in the long run, a positive way to think about higher education until one thinks about the design of the institutions and the performance of the institutions. And then, basically, how one gains access to those institutions from various parts of the economy. 

I think the further impact of the pandemic on post-secondary education will be continued evolution of mega universities that are not driven by a core faculty, but by a core set of services like Western Governors University or Southern New Hampshire University, both fulfilling an important public mission, but on a very different kind of model and a different kind of cost structure. I think that what we’re going to be seeing going forward from the pandemic is also a separation of universities and colleges into those that are innovative and those that are less innovative and those that are non-innovative and those that are anti innovative, that then will have some impact on the emergence of those schools. I think we’re going to see, hopefully see, huge changes in public policy. 

Right now, I’m not a firm believer that we should just be pumping money to students without getting graduation as an outcome, without getting achievement as an outcome. We need everybody more responsible, the student, the university, the institution, everybody. And so, overall, what I’m looking for, what I hope the pandemic can also do, is sort of shock us into realizing that we need new designs, new systems, new opportunities, new investment models, and so forth. 

What I can say about our own institution is that we have about $4 billion a year of revenue right now, only $300 million is coming from our state appropriated funds. The rest is earned in competition against others. All good. That has then driven us to evolve ourselves into a public enterprise model where we serve the public and are owned by the public but we operate in a competitive arena, the way that a university medical center operates in a competitive arena, the way that other public enterprises operate in public arenas. And so, I think what one’s going to also see is more variety, more variation, different modalities. 

We have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of partners, thousands of faculty members, 150,000 degree seeking students. We see all of those numbers continuing to expand. We’re seeing significant improvements in enhancements, in efficiency and costs and so forth. All of that, I think, are possibilities going forward. 

I don’t want to go on much longer other than to say that I think at the root of the impact of the pandemic is hopefully an awakening of the complexity that lies ahead. We weren’t well prepared as a sector for the pandemic. We’re not well prepared for what lies ahead, and we’re underperforming in most of our categories and we need to start performing better. 

I’d be happy to answer any of your questions at all. I know there’s a panel following this, but just email me, Michael.Crow@asu.edu. We’ll get you whatever we have, answer any question that you have, give you any insights that we might have. Good luck with the rest of your meeting and hang in there.