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Designing the New American University: A Review

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ASU’s drive to design a new public university model that targets responsible research, accessible higher education, and commitment to place and communities has to be recognized, if not admired. While university leaders, faculty and policy makers elsewhere likely will not agree with all aspects, they would be well advised to become familiar with the New American University design and to consider how their own institutions and national university systems are addressing the principles the model puts forward.


The posting below reviews the book Designing the New American University, by Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars. It summarizes a paper written by Philip Shapira* as part of the Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCert HE) programme of the Centre for Higher Education Research, Innovation and Learning at the University of Manchester. A full version of the paper is available at  See also (


Rick Reis

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Designing the New American University: A Review

Michael Crow – the President of Arizona State University (ASU) – has become prominent in higher education policy circles for advancing a model for a New American University. This model, now incorporated into ASU’s charter, promotes a university design which is inclusionary in student admissions, undertakes research with public value, and assumes greater responsibility for community wellbeing. It is a model, contends Crow, which delivers better results for students and communities and is cost efficient.

In an era of pressured public higher education budgets and escalating college costs, and where university administrators tend to prioritize academic rankings, selectiveness, and immediate business impacts, Crow’s call for openness and relevance in research universities is refreshing. Still, it is appropriate to probe Crow’s new university model. What challenges is this model addressing? How is it being implemented at ASU? And, if it works, what are the insights for other universities? Crow and historian William B. Dabars tackle such questions in their co-authored book, Designing the New American University.1

The book begins with the current problems of American higher education. A group of US research universities is highly acclaimed in global rankings, but there is wide disparity in the performance of the more than 5,000 universities and colleges across the whole system. The educational attainment of typical US bachelor degree graduates is in the lower quartile of developed nations. The elevation of research over teaching, insufficient faculty instructional training, the rise of a contingent teaching workforce, and undemanding courses are concerns. Yet, tuition costs have soared above inflation not only in private colleges but also in public universities struggling with state budget cutbacks. American college students are acquiring ever-higher debt burdens to pay for an educational product that is no longer adequate. Potential students from low-income families are being priced out of higher education. Students entering undergraduate programs suffer high dropout rates.

For much of the twentieth century the US led the world in mass higher education, but America is now equaled or surpassed by more than a dozen nations in the proportion of the younger cohort completing an undergraduate education. Given the heightened role of knowledge and talent in economic development and innovation, this is a fundamental issue for US global competitiveness. Inadequate access to college restricts social mobility, reinforces economic, racial and ethnic divides, and threatens America’s founding democratic values, the authors add.

Crow and Dabars remind us that Johns Hopkins University established the prototype for the modern American research university in the late 1870s, amalgamating residential undergraduate study adopted from Oxford and Cambridge and graduate education based on German models of research training. The late nineteenth century also saw the formation of public land-grant universities that combined applied research and teaching. By 1915, some 15 major private and public research universities had emerged including Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This group constitutes the core of what the authors denote as America’s “gold standard” universities. With expanded federal research funding, the set of research-extensive universities now stretches to more than 100 institutions. Today, the American higher education system is both hierarchical and decentralized: at the top, a small number of prominent research universities and selective liberal arts colleges, with many more non-PhD awarding universities and four-year colleges in the middle and community colleges at the base. Almost 21 million students are enrolled in American degree-granting institutions.2 Yet, this massive system is outdated and racked by poor performance and costly business models, as Crow and Dabars amply point out.

The narrative of American higher education in trouble is not new: others have made similar observations. The issue is: why have American universities not addressed the problem? Here, the authors highlight a familiar collection of reasons, including disciplinary infighting, acceptance of the status quo, academic resistance to change, and residual elitism. Summed up by Crow and Dabars under the heading of filiopietism – the "excessive veneration of tradition”, these factors coalesce together to impair university reform. But, say Crow and Dabars, another process of institutional emulation, or isomorphism, is also at work. Isomorphism typically involves trying to emulate “gold standard” universities such as Harvard or Stanford. University administrators elsewhere seek prestige through more selective admission, incentivizing research, and building ever more fabulous campus facilities. This intensifies problems of lack of equitable access, unsatisfactory teaching, and high costs, suggest the book’s authors. Crow and Dabars doubt that this emulation strategy can be scaled up: added up, the eight prestigious Ivy League universities enroll fewer undergraduate students than ASU’s 66,000 student undergraduate body. Additionally, elite American universities use the accumulated huge endowments to enhance faculty conditions, research facilities, and the student experience, making them ever more successful in garnering federal grants, student applications, and donor contributions. The majority of universities, with only a fraction of these endowments, find it difficult to compete with, let alone match, this privileged university group. 3

In short, a new university model is needed. Although various alternatives have been put forward, including shifting towards low-cost privately-led online distance learning, Crow and Dabars maintain great faith in research-based publicly-oriented campuses that are embedded in their communities. Their New American University model has multiple elements. Especially critical is accessibility to all students qualified to study at a research university. The result is a large student cohort which is more broadly distributed academically than conventional “gold standard” research universities that select only from the cream of academically-qualified applicants. It requires renewed attention to the quality of teaching, advising and student support, while ensuring cost-efficiency. ASU has deployed enhanced learning technologies and online systems to help meet these needs.

Another element is the recasting of university research to better address regional, national, and global challenges. Interdisciplinary research is encouraged, with the creation of new transdisciplinary schools and institutes. For example, ASU’s conventional biology departments have been transformed into a school of life sciences involving life scientists, engineers, philosophers, social scientists, and ethicists with a mission to operate without internal disciplinary barriers. Such transdisciplinary units have the breadth to tackle large-scale grand challenges, say Crow and Dabars. They also have the depth of resources to mount innovative education and learning programs. A further element is linking university knowledge and capabilities with communities. In addition to technology and business support, ASU encourages university faculty and students to use their expertise and energy to address community issues – with hundreds of projects undertaken within the metropolitan region and state.

Crow and Dabars position the New American University model in evolutionary rather than disruptive terms. They emphasize a pragmatic strand in American academic thought originating in the late nineteenth century Metaphysical Club (founded, perhaps ironically, at Harvard in 1871) and the twentieth century work of educationalist Dewey and others that stresses the practical consequences of knowledge. The use-inspired orientation of the New American University, with its reference to addressing grand challenges and its utilitarian restructuring of research and educational approaches, reflects these pragmatic tenets. But the model also reflects a concern with design and testing new approaches. Crow and Dabars recognize that they do not start with a clean sheet of paper, but they can speed the process of change. In addition to recasting university goals, broadening admissions procedures, and other leadership initiatives, ASU is said to have empowered schools, with these units urged to think big and to benchmark themselves against the best in their domains globally rather than engage in disciplinary competition with other campus-based units.

The New American University concept was outlined in Crow’s 2002 inaugural address as ASU President. There has been more than a decade of effort at ASU to implement the model. Over that time, ASU has grown to become the largest US campus-based university. Crow and Dabars offer an impressive list of further ASU accomplishments. The numbers are in the book, but the gist is: growth across a broad band of academically capable high school and community college entrants, increased enrolment of low-income and minority students, and student financial support has grown, while costs per degree awarded are lower than the median among comparable research-extensive institutions. Leading researchers have been attracted to ASU, sponsored research income has risen, and technology transfer and patenting is up. Although previously deriding over-attention to academic prestige measures, the book proudly remarks on ASU’s rise in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities from not appearing in the top 200 in 2002 to 88th in the world in 2014. ASU’s upward movement in other global and national rankings is favorably acknowledged.

So, by conventional measures, ASU’s attempt to break the mold by being unconventional has been a success, according to the authors. Yet, while these indicators are suggestive, they are not by themselves conclusive. The book’s analysis of success is a self-report. It draws on measures developed by ASU and on favorable outside rankings. Of course, readily available indicators rely on conventional measures of academic prestige, research publications and citations. Such measures would not capture important elements of the ASU model, such as enlarging socioeconomic participation, tackling long-term global challenges, or engaging with communities. Still, the book lacks robust assessment that compares ASU with other innovative non-elite universities in the US and elsewhere.

Interestingly, the Crow and Dabars caution other universities against isomorphism in copying the ASU prototype. Each institution should engage in its own design strategies related to its respective context and objectives. That is, at least, consistent with the pragmatic underpinnings of the authors’ approach. While this is reasonable given the diverse circumstances and decentralized governance of American higher education institutions, the avoidance of generalizability to some extent deflates the claim that the New American University model is scalable.

Crow’s New American University model has attracted media coverage. Newsweek has credited Crow with “overseeing one of the most radical redesigns in higher learning since the modern research university took shape in 19th-century Germany,” while Time has ranked Crow as one of the “10 Best College Presidents.”4  Other reports spotlight controversies. These are less about vision and more about leadership style and methods. Crow’s business-oriented approach, his focus on revenues and costs, expanded student numbers, large classes, and technological solutions, and the abolition of disciplinary units have raised criticisms.5 Reviews of the book by others are similarly divergent. Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, comments favorably on Crow’s commitment to research excellence and mass education in public universities, although he notes that Berkeley is following a different model from ASU, including a new global curriculum that integrates teaching, research, engagement and public missions.6 John Warner, an author and commentator, critiques ASU’s use of technology rather than people in teaching, over-large classes, student advising driven by data mining, high administrator salaries, non-tenured instructor conditions, and deals with corporations.7 Meanwhile, UC Santa Barbara’s Chris Newfield, applauds the New American University’s anti-elitist goals, but raises issues with the means.8 Newfield claims that ASU has reallocated revenues from greatly increased student numbers to boost reputation-raising research activities and argues that the design principles practiced at ASU are top-down and managerial rather than truly collaborative. Newfield maintains that expanding student enrolments in public universities without commensurate increases in faculty resources for teaching and mentoring will never result in educational experiences that can match the personalized attention and small class sizes found at the top private selective (and expensive) universities. He critiques Crow and Dabarsfor not forcibly making the case that affordable high-quality public higher education requires appropriate public funding.

These responses are perhaps not surprising. Leaders in major public universities laud Crow and Dabar’s defense of public higher education, while deftly signaling that their own institution is not isomorphic but has its own visionary strategy. Furthermore, it  is not remarkable that academic critics are somewhat filiopietistic, albeit fairly pointing to the need to remedy system-wide failures that individual university reforms cannot address. In promoting the ASU case, Crow and Dabars inevitably overstate its uniqueness and overlook examples of redesign in other higher educational institutions. They do not discuss downsides to mammoth campuses, among which might be faculty and student alienation, nor fully address how accelerated reform in universities be reconciled with open faculty governance. The plight of the large majority of non-research extensive universities is not considered, nor is there discussion of what broader system changes are necessary to enable universities to serve a diverse range of students and be more effective in targeting societal challenges. Nonetheless, there is an inspiring ring to the call that universities should be measured not by exclusion, but through inclusion. ASU’s drive to design a new public university model that targets responsible research, accessible higher education, and commitment to place and communities has to be recognized, if not admired. While university leaders, faculty and policy makers elsewhere likely will not agree with all aspects, they would be well advised to become familiar with the New American University design and to consider how their own institutions and national university systems are addressing the principles the model puts forward.


1. M.M. Crow and W.B. Dabars, Designing the New American University. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2015.

2. National Center for Educational Statistics,

3. R. Vedder and C. Denhart, 22 Richest Schools in America, Forbes, July 30, 2014.

4. S. Theil, Reinventing the Global University, Newsweek, August 8, 2008; L. Fitzpatrick, The 10 Best College Presidents, Time, November 11, 2009.

5. J. Stripling, The Making of a Higher-Ed Agitator, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2015, 61, 33, A20-24.

6. N.B. Dirks, N.B. Rebirth of the Research University, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2015, 61, 33, pB6-B9.

7. J. Warner. ASU Is the "New American University" - It's Terrifying, InsideHigherEd, January 25, 2015.

8. C. Newfield, What is New about the New American University? Los Angeles Review of Books, April 5, 2015.

*Philip Shapira is Professor of Innovation Management and Policy at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, and a Professor of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Contact: