Michael Crow is not the Devil.

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I was at the AAUP Annual Meeting and conference in Washington, D.C. last week. If you’ve never been you should definitely go as it is both fun and informative. Among other things, I met many of the people responsible for this very blog for the first time. But that’s not what I want to write about here. I want to write about what I did on Monday, after the conference was over.

While most attendees went home on Sunday, I stuck around D.C. for another day so that I can spend some time at the Archive Center in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and get some research done. However, social butterfly that I am, I e-mailed one of my friends in the area the week before to see if he wanted to do lunch. “I can’t,” he wrote back, “but you should do what I’m doing.” It turns out that he was going to an Education Summit sponsored by the magazine, The Atlantic, so that he could listen to Michael Crow. Since the summit was free, and all the higher education speakers weren’t on ’til the afternoon, I decided to split my day between the museum and the Newseum (where the summit was being held) so that I could join my friend for the same reason.

Who is Michael Crow? He’s the President of Arizona State University and he’s in the process of re-inventing higher education whether faculty like it or not. I’m not sure I’m the right guy to tell you everything he’s doing, but you’ve probably heard of some of these things like the Starbucks college completion program or the Global Freshman Academy. Besides that, I’m the guy who recently wrote that Arizona State was now “the first predator university,” so I went out of a basic sense of fairness.

The nominal subject of Crow’s talk was the Starbucks program, but technically it wasn’t even a talk. The journalist who wrote a recent Atlantic article describing the nuts and bolts of that program asked Crow and a barista/Arizona State student a series of questions which they both answered.  Nevertheless, the whole thing was really eye-opening. Now I’m neither a stenographer nor a reporter, so I won’t bet my life the following Crow quotes are precise. Nevertheless, they certainly convey the gist of things he said on Monday:

“Status has become the coin of the realm in higher education, but status should come from the achievement at the end, not [who you admit at] the beginning.”

“You can educate to the highest level of rigor if that’s what you decide to do.”  

“[Students shouldn’t] worry about their major.  If you can’t figure it out, major in English.  It’s the best foundational major you can get.  If you can’t major in English, major in History.”

“What [students] need to focus on is happiness.”  

Around this point, I was so shocked at how much I agreed with him, I switched over to live-tweeting. Here’s some of that:

“ASU purposefully didn’t do any MOOCs. We thought they were backward.”

“We will not do passive [learning] because passive doesn’t work.”

Long before he got off the stage, it became abundantly clear that Michael Crow is not the Devil.

However, the Devil still might be lurking in the details of these and other programs. For example, from what I could tell, Crow’s definition of passive learning is sitting back and watching Massive Open Online Course lectures. Yes, that’s horrible. However, if you look at the recent series of Arizona State videos shot by the guys over at e-Literate, you’ll see that ASU’s definition of personalized learning still isn’t very personal. Here’s a partial transcript of a conversation between e-iterate’s Phil Hill and ASU Math instructor Sue McClure:

Phil Hill: It seems your role comes into more of an overseeing the coaches for their direct support of the students. Plus it sounds like you step in to directly talk to students where needed as well. Your role comes into more of an overseeing the coaches for their direct support of the students.

Sue McClure: Right. I think that explains it very well.

Labor becomes middle management, but most students won’t even get the coaches – which is really just a new buzzword for “Teaching Assistant.” They’ll get a computer program until the TA decides to intervene with Google Hangouts and well-timed e-mails.

Amanda Ripley, the author of that Atlantic article, seemed very impressed with those coaches. However, what’s confusing is that there are more than one set of coaches at ASU. Irrespective of the effect of this structure on the quality of teaching, this part of that Ripley article bothered me greatly:

A few days later, she got a call from Nicki Nosbish, an enrollment counselor based at Arizona State in Phoenix. (Technically, Nosbish works for Xerox, which is under contract to provide enrollment counseling to people applying to Arizona State’s online undergraduate program. The university has chosen to outsource much of its advising, because that kind of support is unfortunately not a core competence of Arizona State, or many other schools.)

If the advising is outsourced, why can’t the act of teaching be outsourced to anyone with math skills and an Internet connection? And if Crow and ASU isn’t going to do that, what if his for-profit competitors do? Is it possible to stop the faculty unbundling process once it has begun? These are not the kinds of things you want to find out after the process has already begun. Consider the English instructors at ASU who woke up to be told that they’d be teaching a 5-5 load without any increased compensation. Your future may become their present if you don’t pay attention. That’s why I switched to live-tweeting in the middle of the presentation.

For context (and because absolutely everyone speaking at the summit had their Twitter address right there on the program), I decided to ping Crow himself during the presentation. Here’s the response I got a little later that day:

That may sound like boilerplate to you, but it still beats the responses that AAUP has gotten from a lot of other university presidents lately. [Think Illinois and Wisconsin, for example.] Crow wants to change faculty culture, but you can’t do that through the exercise of raw power. You have to bring them into the fold and convince them that their culture needs to be changed, otherwise all you’ll get in return is hostility and resistance.

So if, as my friend suggests, Michael Crow is five years ahead of every other university president in the country and he wants to have a dialogue about what the future of higher education will look like, then faculty everywhere really ought to take him up on that. On the faculty side, to participate in this conversation requires paying attention. I’m not just talking about ASU faculty following what’s going on at ASU. I’m talking about ALL faculty following what’s going on at ASU.

To do so, however, we’re going to have to pay attention to a lot of technological developments happening well beyond our own walled gardens. Otherwise, the Devil might slip through and we won’t know until well after it’s too late.

2 thoughts on “Michael Crow is not the Devil.

  1. Pingback: The Faculty as Punching Bag. | The Academe Blog

  2. Pingback: The Faculty as punching bag - World leading higher education information and services

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