Reinventing the Global University

Michael Crow is overseeing one of the most radical redesigns in higher learning since the modern research university took shape in 19th-century Germany. Since taking over as president of Arizona State University in 2002, he's not only doubled the budget to more than $2 billion a year, hired dozens of world-class researchers and rapidly raised the academic profile of what used to be a mediocre school; he's also transforming the way Phoenix-based ASU sees itself—and helping reinvent the university for the global age.

For starters, that means running the school like a CEO, raising fresh capital, bringing in new corporate partners and restructuring dramatically. Crow has begun abolishing traditional departments, lumping pieces together into custom-built "transdisciplinary" institutes. The idea, which he first tested when building Columbia University's Earth Institute in the 1990s, is to promote innovation and real-world problem-solving by getting experts to rub shoulders and think outside their disciplines. Thus ASU's new College of Nursing doesn't just focus on bedside care, but has architects, policy experts and business professors working together on health-care innovation. Crow's ambitions even extend outside the academy: he hopes to boost his university's impact on the economic development of Arizona and the region. The brand-new School of Sustainability features professors from 35 disciplines studying urban development in Phoenix and across the Southwestern United States, bringing in expertise on subjects ranging from desert-water ecology to energy-saving building design.

It's all part of a fundamental rethinking of how universities should function in the 21st century, a process led by Crow and a small number of like-minded pioneers such as NYU's John Sexton and Olin College's Richard Miller. (Not shy about his ambitions, Crow calls his ASU model "The New American University.") Locked into an increasingly fierce global race for students, professors and resources, schools are realizing they need to distinguish themselves to survive. More and more, that means moving students away from specialized academic training and toward more integrated approaches to complex, real-life problems. It also means building on a process that began in the 1980s and '90s to help their schools play an ever more direct role in driving economic and technological progress in society at large.

In the old days, professors concentrated on teaching and their personal research. They didn't care much about what was going on in other departments, let alone outside the campus gates. "There was a wall between the university and society," says David Audretsch, who studies the economic impact of universities at Germany's Max Planck Institute. "Universities didn't play much of a role in the economy." Starting in the 1980s, however, schools like Stanford and MIT became epicenters of the emerging knowledge economy, creating new disciplines like biochemistry and molecular biology; fostering spin-offs and start-ups, and bolstering research budgets by partnering with industry—one of the reasons, says Audretsch, for America's consistently higher economic growth rate in the 1990s. In the sciences, engineering, medicine, business, and economics the barriers that had isolated the university from society came tumbling down.

Today it's become common for universities to help solve real-life problems and push economic growth. But a few are taking it to the next level. At Stanford, Roberta Katz, vice president for strategic planning, says her university's mission is to increase engagement by completing the breakdown of "segregated academic silos." Stanford has created dozens of new multidisciplinary centers and programs, changing not just curriculums but even the architecture of new buildings in order to promote teamwork and cross-fertilization. The new Bio-X bioscience center, for example, features joint labs, flexible layouts for quick reconfiguring, and lots of social spaces for group brainstorming. "Research in a purely academic vacuum was probably never sufficient," says Katz, "but particularly not in this day and age." Climate change, aging societies, global security—none of these issues, she says, can be addressed by working in the confines of traditional academic departments.

Even in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where schools are often weighed down by slow-moving bureaucracies, universities are fast adapting. In Ireland, for example, Dublin City University—which was founded less than 30 years ago (unlike nearby Trinity College, which dates to 1592)—has been given a clear mandate to move Ireland up the ladder of the knowledge economy, says DCU head of strategy Gordon McConnell. Today, companies like Intel and Samsung run research labs in the middle of the campus, brought there with the help of Ireland's Inward Development Agency. At first, professors balked at what they considered blatant commercialization. But this direct link to some of the companies that helped drive the "Celtic Tiger" has given students a tremendous head start when looking for jobs.

More radically, in Saudi Arabia, when King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opens its doors in 2010, it will not only be the world's sixth richest university, with a $10 billion endowment; it will also boast the globe's most revolutionary university structure—namely, no academic departments at all. All work will be done in only four interdisciplinary research institutes, focusing on biosciences, materials science, energy and the environment, and computer science and math.

It's not just universities' structures that are being reengineered. Students themselves are being offered radically new, international learning experiences. In the past, when schools like Georgetown or Cornell set up satellite campuses abroad, they acted like franchise operators—spreading the brand and generating cash but not providing new opportunities for students at the home campus to study abroad. Now that's changing. NYU's Sexton, for example, plans to use NYU's foreign campuses to internationalize the curriculums everywhere, rotating students among NYU's branches in New York, Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv and Florence, as well as to affiliates in Berlin, Shanghai, Singapore and Buenos Aires. And we're not just talking about traditional semesters abroad. If Sexton has his way, entire future classes at NYU will graduate immersed in multiple languages and cultures, based on numerous stints overseas that have been integrated into their curriculums.

Students will profit from two other major rethinkings underway, concerning admissions and tuition. Olin College of Engineering, founded in 2001 in Needham, Massachusetts, has not only abolished academic departments and tenure for professors. It's also abolished tuition for all of its 300 students, financing teaching expenses through its $460 million endowment. The idea is to give students more freedom in choosing their careers without having to worry about paying off debt. Back at ASU, meanwhile, Crow promises to keep admissions inclusive even as the school's academic rating rises. He says the ultraselective admissions policies of schools like Harvard and Yale mean they merely refine youngsters whose success was already virtually guaranteed. Training those less sure to get ahead is far more valuable, he argues. And new studies back him up, showing that achievement differentials—that is, the "value added" to human capital by attending college—are actually higher at good-quality schools with less selective admissions than they are at the Ivies. "Not moving to more selective admissions is the most radical thing we're doing," says Crow. He's not the only one thinking in such terms; Stanford's Katz says she too is reevaluating the admissions strategy.

Of course, not everyone's a fan of these developments. Some professors have criticized Crow for turning ASU into a "corporate university" that focuses on spin-off revenue instead of academic learning. And there's a tension, says Max Planck's Audretsch, between universities trying to help the overall economy and their function as reservoirs and generators of basic learning. "The knowledge economy requires we get more out of our universities while keeping them great and not turning them into vocational colleges," he says. Stanford's Katz warns that amid all the moves to promote interdisciplinary thinking, there is a risk of connecting too many dots and losing sight of the need for solid data and science. Yet Crow is no more radical than the innovators who helped create the modern university in Germany in the 19th century, fusing teaching and research in new ways. If he can keep things in balance like they did, today's schools, students and the societies they serve could all profit from the process.