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Photo provided by Arizona State University
Most outside observers agree that higher education is screaming for disruption, but many of the old guards inside the gates like things the way they are. Meet Michael Crow, the field general in the battle over the new American university.

Editor's note: The Deseret News has identified six heroes of 2014 — men and women making an impact in our six areas of emphasis. Michael Crow is our hero in the arena of education.

It was Christmas Eve in 1968, when a 13-year old boy dropped off the last food delivery for his Eagle Scout project to a poor family on the edge of town in Lexington Park, Maryland.

As the young Michael Crow walked away from that shack with its potbelly stove and dirt floors, his mind was torn by the contrast between the poverty there and the excitement taking place 238,900 miles up in the sky. The world’s attention was fixed on Apollo 8, which circled the moon that day, its crew becoming the first humans to witness an earthrise.

Crow remembers that night looking up at the moon, just over half full on a clear, freezing night.

“Even for a young boy at the time,” Crow said, “the irony of the stark poverty and the trip to the moon struck me hard, making a permanent impression on my thinking.”

Since that day, Crow’s professional focus has been figuring out how human ingenuity can be coupled with human institutions to solve difficult problems.

Now in his 13th year as president of Arizona State University, Crow, 58, has helped turn what had been a middling state university into an aspiring research powerhouse whose 70,000 face-to-face students on five urban campuses are supplemented with 13,000 online students.

In 2008, Newsweek called ASU "one of the most radical redesigns in higher education." In 2010 Time magazine named Crow one of the 10 best college presidents in the U.S., and that same year a Wall Street Journal survey identified ASU graduates as the fifth-most coveted by major employers.

ASU’s threefold mission under Crow is to accept and teach all who qualify to study there; support research that addresses real-world needs; and answer to the community it serves. It may all sound obvious to the outsider, but in the rarefied world of academia, each of those goals has created controversy.

Crow is a disruptor. And while most outside observers agree that higher education is screaming for disruption, many of the old guards inside the gates like things the way they are. Meet the field general in the battle over the new American university.

The disruptor

Crow was born into a Navy family in San Diego in 1955. His mom died when he was 9, and for a few years he and his three siblings were farmed out to different family members. Their widowed father, an enlisted sailor, was on the go and did not earn much, and by the time Crow graduated from high school he had attended 17 different schools.

As an undergraduate at Iowa State, Crow wanted to do five majors. When Iowa State said no, he settled for two: political science and environmental science, but he took as many philosophy and engineering courses as he could, piling on heavy course loads.

"I wanted the broadest basis for my understanding,” Crow said, “and I thought the disciplines were artificially narrow."

With a doctorate from Syracuse in public administration, Crow launched his career at Columbia University, quickly moving into administration and eventually becoming vice provost, the third-highest ranking official at the university.

But as Crow carved out his career in higher education, the Apollo 8 paradox haunted him. Everywhere he looked, he saw unfocused potential and wasted resources: "I was driven by a frustration that America has not been moving with the creativity and energy that we've had in the past," Crow said.

And so in 2002 when he was offered the job at ASU, Crow knew what he wanted to do with it. He would build the New American University, one that would solve real-world problems while offering access to all qualified students.

Transdisciplinary focus

When Crow first took over at ASU he seemed brash and unlikable, said Mark Killian, former speaker of the Arizona House and now chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents. "I couldn't get him to shut up," Killian recalled.

But Killian quickly became a Crow ally, recognizing that what looked like arrogance was actually clarity of vision and an urgency to change things against dogged resistance.

Now the man who wanted five majors wanted students and researchers to break down fences so they could solve the real-world problems with interlocking skills sets.

Everywhere you looked on campus “transdisciplinary” was the watchword.

One of the most prominent new creations was ASU’s School of Sustainability, launched in 2006. It was a program that offered courses on everything from energy and materials, to economics and water quality, to international development and public policy and much more in between.

A more controversial shift began in 2004, when the Department of Anthropology morphed into the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

The old guards saw this as an assault on their discipline, a prelude to its destruction: “Crow is a thug in a business suit,” one ASU anthropology professor told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2005.

By 2011, four faculty members in the Department of Anthropology, the site of some of Crow's most "disruptive work," would report in Anthropology News that the shift in emphasis was working. Faculty size and enrollment were up, and 25 percent of the faculty were non-anthropologists — economists and epidemiologists, sociologists and geographers.

And the cross-fertilization of thought was bearing real fruit. The faculty members reported strong interaction among the specialists and a sense of identity settling in for the school.

When Crow saw anthropologists actively defending their new transdisciplinary school to their peers elsewhere, he says, he knew his transformation was working.

Making converts

Part of Crow's success lies in his openness to diverse ideas and people, Killian says. When Crow first took office, he reached out to faith groups who had been alienated by the previous administration, including the Mormons, which comprise 7 percent of Arizona's population.

"He told us he wanted 10,000 LDS students at ASU," Killian said, who is himself a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "He wanted them to see it as a real alternative to BYU, which has run out of space for growth."

Winning faculty converts was a different challenge.

“You can imagine that when President Crow showed up in 2002 and laid out this vision, there was a great deal of skepticism,” says James O'Brien, ASU’s senior vice president of university affairs.

“Whether people always agreed or not with the Crow’s design, there was always complete transparency about where he was headed,” O’Brien said.

The real proof of success, O’Brien said, is when the model began to attract talent: “People are coming here because of the vision, not just to take a job at another big university," he said.

O’Brien points to Lee Hartwell, the Nobel Prize-winning physiologist who came to ASU in 2009 because he wanted to be able to do great science and develop a new way of teaching science in middle school.

Scale and inclusion

ASU measures itself, according to its mission statement, "not by who we exclude, but rather by who we include and how they succeed.”

ASU now touts record levels of transfer students from community college, a freshman class 42 percent larger than in 2002, a 100 percent increase in students of color and a 647 percent increase in low-income Arizona freshmen enrolled.

A corollary tenet for Crow is that the school must recruit and produce exceptional undergraduate talent as well as be broadly inclusive. Again, scale comes into play. ASU embeds an elite honors college within its larger campus, drawing in large numbers of the best Arizona students.

“And those A students at ASU do as well or better here than A students attending any university in the country," Crow said. ASU students won 26 Fulbright scholarships in 2013, ranking third in the nation, tied with Princeton and Rutgers.

Still, ASU gets pummeled within higher education circles, Crow says, by critics who say that one can't scale a quality education, that digital learning cannot compete with a classroom, that the humanities will be sacrificed when measurable payoffs are required, or that all the transdisciplinary inventions smack of gimmickry.

Most of these critiques have tempered with time and maturation of the model, as O'Brien noted. Size, however, is one of the most enduring doubts. How can a university continue to grow its student body without thinning either research or quality teaching?

Scale, Crow argues, is the key to combining top level research with a large, diverse student body. About 75 percent of general education can be "technologically empowered," he says. Larger classes "flip the classroom," putting lectures online and then using classroom time for peer learning and adaptive computer programs that assess and target weaknesses.

ASU now offers 70 degrees that can be earned entirely online, and Crow says the lessons learned in each case are used to enhance on campus instruction: "We have math classes with 150 students that outperform any 20-student class we've ever had,” Crow said.

The teacher

Crow walks the walk on instruction, teaching one semester-long course every year. Naturally, it’s a transdisciplinary class on science and technology policy. That class is always high priority for him, said Derrick Anderson, who now teaches in the ASU School of Public Affairs.

Anderson, who took a class from Crow as an undergraduate and later worked as a teaching assistant, describes Crow returning on a red-eye from speaking with the Minnesota legislature so he could teach his class on science and technology the next morning.

"I think the teaching is critical to keep advancing your own intellectual development," Crow said. "Teaching is the hardest thing that anybody does, if you do it well. It's hard, but it's also invigorating and helps me in the other things I do."

There is a link between Crow's view that academic disciplines are artificial and his enthusiasm for teaching. Given enough freedom and stimulation, he has found, students tend to disrupt those silos themselves.

"They experience information differently than I do," Crow said. "They can see the same information and derive a different outcome. It's a powerful thing to see intellectual evolution at work."