Lessons From Arizona State University

Oct 30, 2017

Commentary: Arizona State University has a reputation for innovation, styling itself as the “New American University.” Recently, a group of NMSU faculty and administrators, including yours truly and also Provost Dan Howard, traveled to Tempe to see what lessons ASU might have for NMSU.

One thing that jumps out is that ASU is a massive enterprise. It serves 100,000 students—about 70,000 in residence and another 30,000 on line—with more than 2000 faculty. Depending on how you measure these things, it is the largest University in the country.

ASU also pays top dollar for their faculty and staff. Partly this is driven by their huge student body. The economies of scale that this allows cost savings that are partially passed on to faculty and staff in the form of higher salaries.

Breaking down silos is an ongoing theme at ASU. The idea is to organize around problems rather than around disciplines. While easily said, silo deconstruction is not easy. ASU has done so by encouraging “dotted line” relationships between faculty in one discipline with departments or schools in another discipline. We meet one professor, for example, who had a primary appointment in the School of Religion, Philosophy and History, and a secondary appointment in engineering institute. He worked on the ethics of new technologies.

The extent of change at ASU is uneven. There is the School of Sustainability that was started de novo about a decade ago. Many were skeptical of its long-term potential, viewing sustainability as a wool-headed concept. But in fact, the School is a great success, having developed a truly interdisciplinary program that utilizes faculty from across the campus. It graduates are finding good paying jobs. NMSU is developing a sustainability program; ASU success in the area provides a model for a path forward by our program.

The biological sciences took a different tack, merging several existing departments into a single School of Life Sciences. Again, the outcome is viewed as very positive. Then there is the College of Engineering that was forced to reorganize in the wake of the Great Recession. There was initially a great deal of disgruntlement, but in the end, at least among the faculty members we talked to, the consensus is that the reorganization has worked out well. And ASU saves money by having fewer larger units.

Driving all this change is Michael Crow, ASU’s president. In conversation after conversation, people kept invoking his name, almost as a sort of mantra. Crow’s personality and vision permeates the place. Crow is clearly a transformative leader. He is also the highest paid college president in the country. Whether NMSU can identify and then attract such a transformative leader is problematic. They don’t grow on trees and any number of individuals on Crow’s unique capacities as unreproducible.

ASU has some advantages that make change easier than it might otherwise be. It has a huge budget, in which small tweaks can fund significant new initiatives. ASU has a growing student body, having recently expanded aggressively into the online market. And over 15 years, Michael Crow has managed to create a culture of change. He has achieved this in part by force of will, in part by recruiting new personnel that share is vision, and by demonstrating the benefits of change through success.

Christopher A. Erickson, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at NMSU. He is member of Team 6, the task force charged with recommending changes to the academic organization of the University. The opinions expressed may not be shared by the other member of Team 6, the regents or administration of NMSU. Chris can be reached at