Ever Higher Education

A conversation with Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University

HUMANITIES, Summer 2023, Volume 44, Number 3

Michael Crow became president of Arizona State University in July 2002. Under his leadership, ASU has adopted an ambitious charter and expanded its student body to become one of the largest universities in America. Meanwhile, Crow himself has built a reputation for shrewd management, creative partnerships, and technological innovation while becoming an important figure in discussions around the future of public education. After meeting President Crow on a recent trip to Arizona, NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo) interviewed him by video conference on May 30.

SHELLY C. LOWE: As you may know, I’m a University of Arizona graduate, and I was raised in Arizona. Arizona is my home. And I am one of the many people who admire what you have done at Arizona State University.

You came in more than 20 years ago and expanded the boundaries of public higher education, and you’ve gotten quite a bit of attention for it. Tell me a little bit about your goals for the university and how the humanities play a role.

MICHAEL CROW: What we’ve tried to do is to construct what we call the New American University, which starts with all of the precepts of the great universities of the past. And the humanities are at the core of what we do. Who are we? Where did we come from? How do we create? These are all questions the humanities ask.

Another question is, How can we build a university that is unbelievably accessible and at the same time unbelievably excellent? In many of our public universities we don’t put the two things together. We have capped the enrollment of Michigan, Berkeley, and other universities by continually raising admissions standards. Or we have more open admissions standards and then admit lots of students but then tell faculty you’re going to teach five or six courses per semester and will not be as active, as scholarly, as you were. Instead, we believed we could construct a university that is academically excellent, unbelievably creative, and unbelievably accessible.

But we needed a different approach, one that uses technology, innovations, and a new model for the academic semesters. We applied all of these innovations to the humanities as well and have ended up with greatly expanded participation in English, philosophy, history, and all of the core humanities disciplines.

We even surprised ourselves a little. Our innovations have improved our ability to hear the voices of all students, not just the alpha students sitting in the front of the classroom and engaging in a lovely dialog with the professor who feels good if they are reaching two or three smart students in their class.

What we found is that our learning outcomes in all of the humanities areas have been enhanced. And the ability of students to double and triple major, including in the humanities, has been enhanced. The number of students learning in the humanities has increased, and the number of people with access to humanities faculty members has increased as well, through online offerings designed and created by our own faculty.

We’ve designed the university to be student-centric, to be innovation-driven, and to leave no one out. We never told the English department that they had to become technologically capable, but they became technologically capable. They have an online English degree that they’re very proud of. They have interactive programs with digitally enhanced, tutor-enhanced writing programs and creative programs.

In history, in philosophy, in Jewish studies, and other programs, the same thing happened. We have learned that we can have a very broad student body, an outstanding world-class faculty, large numbers of students, and still make it work.

LOWE: I am intrigued that you have allowed faculty and departments to think outside the box. For example, I just learned about your College of Global Futures and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. How do you encourage faculty and departments to keep innovating? Do you find that there are barriers?

CROW: Well, there are always barriers, but if you operate under the assumption that you’re trying to get 80 or 85 percent of the faculty to come along and understand you’re not going to win over everybody, then you can make a lot more progress.

The basic approach was like this. Here’s our mission: egalitarian access to a world-class university. And here’s the state of the world: global climate change and social and cultural evolution. We’re at a disruption moment in that evolutionary process. As the hill gets steeper, as the challenges become more exacting and the idea of liberty becomes more expansive, those are things that are hard for some people to swallow.

The motivating factor for the faculty was freedom from the bureaucracy of academia. You can design what you want. Let’s take the College of Global Futures inside the Julie A. Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. It is focused on bringing together scientists, engineers, humanists, and social scientists. We have 700 faculty members involved from around the university. Over a hundred are core appointments, coming from 45 other units. And they’re focused on how to lay down the intellectual tracks for understanding and preparing for the future at the four schools that we built, the School of Sustainability, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, the School of Complex Adaptive Systems, and the School of Ocean Futures.

Now, I’m going to take the work of an English professor that we have here, who also happens to be our dean of humanities, Jeffrey Cohen. So Jeffrey is a medievalist, and he has a deep understanding of the conceptualizations of the Earth from the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth centuries, that sort of time frame. It turns out that writers and artists were deeply imaginative about the Earth.

There are paintings of the Earth as a sphere before it was generally accepted to be a sphere, with cities sticking up and down on the side of the sphere. Jeffrey and others have been asking, What is the Earth to us? What is the Earth in our culture? What is the Earth in our language and our literature?

We have been looking into how to build a new kind of relationship between the “built” environment, everything that we have made, and the natural environment, which is everything we came from but that we didn’t make. Meaning it’s natural, it evolves on its own. We’re from that, and then we built all these other things that are now stressing that natural environment—which is particularly relative to us. I mean, the Earth goes on with or without us, but we don’t go on with or without it.

LOWE: I like how you describe the humanities as the foundation underneath all this creative expansion. A lot of the conversation we’re having now is about how difficult it is for the humanities in higher education. What would be your advice to programs, to NEH? How can we be innovative in the humanities?

CROW: It’s funny. Years ago, I was in London in the middle of this tremendous thunderstorm, and I was on a panel at a joint meeting of the Royal Society, which is for science, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The panel was on the death of the humanities.

So I get up on the panel, and I say, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. What do you mean the death of the humanities? There can’t be any death of the humanities. If there’s the death of the humanities, our species doesn’t even exist anymore.”

What I said was, you have to put everything into perspective. The humanists have to understand that they’re the core of the core, but the intellectual planet is now huge. It used to be a lot smaller. Now, the humanities are still the core, and they will always be the core, but everything we know as a species just keeps expanding and expanding. The humanists keep referring to themselves as less relevant or less important because all the money is going to engineering.

Well, not all the money’s going to engineering. It just turns out it costs more money to recreate the atmosphere of deep space in a metal box on the Earth.

What we have tried to do at ASU is to empower our humanists to be maximally creative. And there’s a lot of things I’m hopeful we’ll still be able to do, new areas of philosophy and new areas of religious studies and new areas of historical studies and new ways of thinking and new ways of communicating about all of the complexities of the human spirit. One thing we have not done yet is open up the humanities to the full breadth of human understanding.

We just haven’t done that. We’ve not really faced the notion of elitism that academia perpetrates. Plato was a brilliant philosopher, but he had his philosopher kings and his guardians and then his artisans or his masses. And there weren’t very many philosopher kings.

In the humanities, people say we’re lesser than the sciences, or biotech is more important, or engineering is more important. They’re not more important. They’re all derivative of deep understandings of ourselves and questions like, How do we care for each other? Or how do we enhance people’s lives and support them? What we’ve tried to do in the humanities is expand and empower, with technology, diversity of thinking, diversity of perspective, diversity of style, of writing and communication, all those kinds of things.

What we really need to do is to make sure the humanists are connected, that they’re well supported, that we’re not reducing the requirements for humanities and the understanding of culture in our degree programs or to be a college graduate. We should be looking at this as an opportunity.

LOWE: One of your graduates, Maya Noto, a staff member from Arizona Humanities, talked to us about what it was like to study at ASU. She said, “I felt like ASU knew me.” With such diversity and size, how do you get students to feel the institution knows who they are?

CROW: Number one, we have a culture of openness within the institution. It’s a highly successful amalgamation of people from 158 countries and dozens and dozens of cultures and subcultures in the United States. And, for the most part, people feel comfortable being here. It’s an open and free environment for intellectual discourse and personal discourse.

Number two, we are focused on trying to help students succeed. We have tools and devices and systems that can do more of the mundane things, like advising you on how to double major in English and gender studies. This frees the staff and the faculty to talk to you about life choices and big ideas like, Why is it that the writing of women has been suppressed for so long? Or whatever the idea is that you want to spend time focusing on.

LOWE: One thing I’d like to do here at NEH is reach individuals and communities all across the country, particularly communities we haven’t reached in the past. How does the institution connect to the local communities or even the region or the state?

CROW: It goes back to the design. We broke up the semester into two academic modules per semester. If you are teaching, you might teach your face-to-face class in Fall A, which is the seven-and-a-half-week block of intense instruction, and then you’re done until the spring semester. Then you might teach two online courses and you’ve fulfilled your teaching requirement, or maybe you’re also teaching a graduate seminar online in the summer and that’s your entire teaching.

That means you are free from the constantly repeating 15-week cycle. And because you are not mapping out what courses kids need to take to be an English major, you’re helping them to determine why they want to be an English major.

We don’t really care what you’re doing so long as you’re creating new stuff and teaching people. You need to be present for your classes if you’re teaching face-to-face, but with Zoom you have more freedom the rest of the time. You also have ways to enhance the learning outcomes of your students. Now, you may not choose to use those. No one makes you use anything.

We have 80,000 students here with us on campus. We’ll have 100,000 degree-seeking students online. There are thousands of humanities majors online and these are people in their late twenties and thirties and older. They are people who really wanted to get a degree in English or wanted to get a degree in history and couldn’t.

For whatever reason, they didn’t finish college. It’s hard for faculty members to remember this, but most people who go to college in the United States don’t finish. Process that for a second.

LOWE: Right.

CROW: That’s a terrible, terrible thing. So then you’re twenty-nine years old, you have 75 credits from Lewis and Clark College in English as your major. Well, how would you ever finish that? You’re not going back to Lewis and Clark College. But your mom really wants you to, or you feel bad that you didn’t finish, or you need to do it so you can get this job, or you just love English and literature and you even have some areas that you’re interested in. Well, we’ve created a way to do all that.

We’re working with Native American communities throughout Arizona and the United States. We’re working with community college students. We’re working with high schools. We have 200 college credit-bearing courses, including in the humanities, for high school students, designed for them. We have what we call the Universal Learner Curriculum, which is reaching out to kids and families where maybe nobody knows how to go to college.

I came from a family where no one had ever been to college. No one really knew how to go to college. They just said write letters and somebody will let you in. And luckily for me they did. So we built all these things to reach out at the community level, at the family level, at the individual level, all of that.

LOWE: In 50 years, what will ASU look like? What will be its shining achievements? Especially with ChatGPT and other examples of artificial intelligence, what do you see as ASU’s role down the road?

CROW: I definitely did not agree with the article I read in the New York Times today that AI is going to lead to the end of our civilization.

There could be some rocks on the road ahead and there could even be some rockslides, but I just don’t think it’s going to be the end of us.

Fifty years from now, 2073, ASU will be a highly agile, intellectually creative, non-fixed university. I would be surprised if the same departments and schools existed 50 years from now. Why would they? Some would. English certainly, physics certainly, but not lots of other things.

We have this dream that perhaps the big universities will be teaching, learning, and discovery centers where maybe none of the students will have to pay because they’ll all be working and learning at the same time.

So, not only are you learning English but you’re figuring out how to build English-learning tools. You’re figuring out how to build new ways to animate certain forms of literature that you’ve become fascinated with, or we’ve got computational tools that are taking Iberian literature from Spain and from Mexico and Chicano literature from the United States and doing massive comparative analysis and there’s lots of people who are involved.

We see the university as becoming deeper and more connected through teaching, learning, and discovery at every level. No one can really predict the future. Universities have been around for a long time but I’m imagining that the university will be deeply focused on sustainability and sustainability outcomes, deeply focused on getting people to better understand and respect each other’s cultures and backgrounds.

I think that we’ll be involved in helping the democracy to be more successful.

As for ChatGPT and other augmented and artificial intelligence systems, my own view is that they will become unbelievable tools to help a student learn more, learn more quickly, and understand more deeply.

They’ll become basically like a highly educated uncle or aunt whom you can ask questions all the time. What about this? And this? And what about this? Or like a technical assistant that then levels the playing field.

I was using it recently to pretend that I was confronted with a situation in what is presently the Czech Republic in the year 125 AD. I made myself a Roman centurion, and I had a legion that we had to get across a river. So I asked for the bridging technologies of the year 125 AD. It told me what they were and instructed me how to build them.

I asked what kinds of trees in that location to use, what size they would need to be, how to build the bridge and so on. I just went on and on and on and on. There’s no encyclopedia that can do that. There’s no single person I can go to and talk to about something like that who understands both the history and dynamics and even the structure of trees and how you chop them down.

I asked how to drag trees that weigh 15 tons or whatever, how do I drag them for miles. It tells me how to drag these trees, how to float these trees, how to do all this kind of stuff. The systems will be very, very powerful in that sense.

I’ve also been using it to understand some of the deeper meanings in certain writers that I’ve read, Virginia Woolf being one. I have read her and don’t really get why everybody’s so excited. You know, what makes it great? What’s the in-depth thing that I’m missing?

I’m trying to understand a person like Cicero and his oratory, his political positioning, and then how much of that was real. And then why did the Roman Empire still become corrupt and still become anti-democratic? I’m asking it all these questions. It isn’t even necessary that the answers are, quote unquote, right. The answers are analytical.

I think that the tools are very, very valuable. They will be integrated into almost everything, though we will proceed with caution.

LOWE: Thank you for your time, President Crow.

CROW: My pleasure.