ASU and the New American University

In this week’s Nature, a special issue on the evolution of modern academic institutions, Arizona State University (ASU) President Michael Crow and his vision of the New American University are profiled. Appointed President in 2002, previously Executive Vice Provost at Columbia University, Crow began restructuring ASU. His goal: to shape it into a hub of multidisciplinary research, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

12 years into Crow’s tenure, ASU has expanded its campus, forming and constructing new research institutes like the Biodesign Institute, School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. The University’s growth in funding and collaboration are also remarkable. From the Nature piece:

ASU’s funding numbers show that grant-givers find the cross-disciplinary approach attractive. From 2003 to 2012, the university’s federally financed research portfolio grew by 162%, vastly outpacing the average increase seen at 15 similar public institutions. ... The number of funded projects with principal investigators in two or more departments rose by 75% between 2003 and 2014.

While the article further notes that ASU’s publication rate has more than doubled, it asserts its scientific profile has hardly been raised. Citing largely unchanged proportions of publications in high-profile journals or with high numbers of citations, this analysis doesn’t account for some important factors.

  1. Since ASU’s funding at present has more than doubled, one should expect an explosive BOOM in publications and citations over the next few years;

  2. Collaborating, whether in the same institution or across the world is fraught with challenges, so pace may lag;

  3. The research from ASU’s new institutes and far-reaching collaborations is inherently different (innovation is, by definition); like Crow said, “We don’t want to ask the same questions as other institutions,” so there aren’t yet large circles to cite these early works;

  4. Building off the above point, it can take years for journal articles to accumulate even a portion of their lifetime citations (an argument against impact factor);

Even without these caveats, ASU’s progression and the essence of Crow’s New American University model presciently anticipated recent developments in the modern university. Observing ASU’s emphasis on cross-disciplinary entrepreneurship and innovation (E&I) through research, one notes similar trends at top-tier universities across the world. With job markets in flux, a rapidly changing economy, and an ever-increasing focus on science and technology, schools attract students and build connections to business through E&I hubs, an explicit goal of Crow’s vision for ASU.

Rethinking and reimagining research and education at academic institutions is critical for universities and their students to remain competitive. Best of all, science and society will both benefit. Here’s to hoping the New American University expands beyond Phoenix, Arizona.