Review of “Designing the New American University”

Since Michael Crow became the president of Arizona State University in 2002, he has worked to reorganize and grow the institution into his vision of a `New American University.’ ASU has grown to over 80,000 students during his time as president through a commitment to admit all students who meet a relatively modest set of academic qualifications. At the same time, the university has embarked upon a number of significant academic reorganizations that have gotten rid of many traditional academic departments and replacing them with larger interdisciplinary schools. Crow has also attracted his fair share of criticism over the years, including for alleged micromanaging and his willingness to venture into online education. (I’ve previously critiqued ASU Online’s program with Starbucks, although many of my concerns have since been alleviated.)

Crow partnered with William Dabars, an ASU professor, to write Designing the New American University (Johns Hopkins Press, $34.95 hardcover) to more fully explain how the ASU model works. The first several chapters of the book, although rather verbose, focus on the development of the American research university. A key concept that the authors raise is isomorphism—the tendency of organizations to resemble a leading organization in the market. Crow and Dabars contend that research universities have largely followed the lead of elite private universities such as Harvard and the big Midwestern land-grant universities that developed following the Civil War. Much has changed since then, so they argue that a new structure is needed.

Chapter 7 is the key chapter of the book, in which the authors detail the design of Arizona State as a ‘New American University’ (and make a nice sales pitch for the university in the process). Crow and Dabars celebrate the growth of Arizona State, which has been matched by only a small number of public research universities. They note that a stronger focus on access has hurt them in the U.S. News rankings, a key measure of prestige—while celebrating their ranking as an ‘Up and Coming School.’ (In the Washington Monthly rankings that I compile, ASU is a very respectable 28th.) The scale of ASU allows the possibility for cost-effective operations, something which the university is trying to measure through their Center for Measuring University Performance.

It certainly seems like some elements of the changes at ASU could potentially be adopted at other research universities, but it is worth noting that research universities make up only about 200-300 of the over 7,500 postsecondary institutions in the United States. I am left wondering what the `New American’ model would look like in other sectors of higher education, which is beyond the scope of this book but an important question to answer. Some other questions to consider are the following:

(1) How would a commitment to growth happen at colleges without the prestige or market power to attract significant numbers of out-of-state students?

(2) ASU seems to have done more academic reorganizations in research-intensive departments. How would this work at a more teaching-oriented institution?

(3) How will the continuing growth of ASU Online, as well as the multiple branch campuses in the Phoenix metropolitan area, affect the organizational structure? At what point, if any, does a university reach the maximum optimal size?

(4) Will ASU’s design remain the same once Michael Crow is not president? (And is that a good thing?)

Overall, this is a solid book that is getting a substantial amount of attention for good reason. While the book could have been about 50 pages shorter while still conveying all of the important information, the final chapter is highly recommended reading. I plan to assign that chapter to my organization and governance classes in the future so they can understand how ASU is growing and succeeding through an atypical higher education model.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.