Mission: Impossible

The Arizona Legislature may prove to be too much for ASU's unsinkable Michael Crow

Crow's jihad to propel ASU into the forefront of America's research institutions will not be an easy task -- particularly with a legislature whose leadership is dominated by conservative Mormon Republicans hell-bent on keeping taxes low and balancing the state budget by strangling education.

Even now, legislators want to slash $40 million from the universities' operating budgets for next year. Meanwhile, the Senate has yet to vote on the $400 million research bill. Crow may not know whether he's won this crucial round for many weeks.

The stakes are high.

George Poste brings immediate international prestige to the AZ Biodesign Institute.
George Poste brings immediate international prestige to the AZ Biodesign Institute.
Michael Crow discusses his visions of a new kind of university.
Emily Piraino
Michael Crow discusses his visions of a new kind of university.

Crow says there is no single mission more important to the university and to the economic future of Phoenix than to make ASU a premier player in the rough-and-tumble world of science- and technology-driven research funded primarily by the federal government.

Failure to expand ASU's research efforts greatly restricts the amount of money the university can generate for all of its activities, especially when the Legislature is steadily decreasing cash flow to universities while allowing tuition to creep higher. Up to 40 percent of federal research grants can be spent on general university expenses.

"The way government partners with universities for funding of research is what funds universities," Crow says. "We've been walking away from that."

The competition for more than $33 billion in university research grants each year is a high-stakes, cutthroat game that can have a profound impact on the development of regional economies.

"The competition is intense because this is the game," Crow says. "And the thing here is people don't even understand the game, much less realize we are out of it."

Crow says he's been somewhat taken aback by the response of some conservative legislators who don't seem to understand that the Arizona Legislature is competing with the governments of states and countries throughout the world when it makes decisions on investments in research facilities on Arizona's campuses.

"A good percentage of the Legislature says . . . What are they talking about?'" Crow says. "That's literally it."

The federal research pool for universities is expected to increase sharply because of President Bush's request for the largest research and development budget in the nation's history -- $122.5 billion for fiscal 2004.

Some would say Crow has embarked on an impossible mission, a criticism he readily acknowledges -- with a caveat.

"You could say this is a futile attempt," Crow says. "But you couldn't say it's a meaningless attempt."


The first step in Crow's mission is to transform ASU into a serious competitor for research dollars with blue-blood schools such as Johns Hopkins University.

While the venerable Baltimore institution rarely shows up on the sports television shows (lacrosse aside) where ASU receives most of its media attention, the Johns Hopkins brain trust generated nearly $1 billion in research spending in 2001 to rank No. 1 in the nation in a poll that dwarfs the importance of college football's Top 25.

Each dollar of externally funded research translates into a five-fold or more -- sometimes far more -- impact on regional economies. The $1 billion of external research funding at Johns Hopkins brings at least a $5 billion regional economic impact to the Baltimore area.

Other top research institutions include second-ranked University of California at Los Angeles ($693 million), followed by the University of Wisconsin ($604 million), the University of Michigan ($600 million) and the University of Washington ($589 million).

Unlike the Sun Devil men's basketball team which was invited to the NCAA tournament of 65 teams, ASU wouldn't have secured a slot in the Big Dance of Research Institutions.

ASU was 89th in 2001 at an anemic $119 million in R&D spending, of which $57 million came from the federal government and $48 million from foundation grants.

Powered by its world-class medical center, agriculture college and optics department, the University of Arizona ranked 23rd, generating three times as much R&D money as ASU at $367 million, with $200 million coming from the federal government.

To jump-start ASU's drive to become a major research university, Crow launched an aggressive campaign, first with the Board of Regents and later with the Legislature, to build research facilities at ASU.

He set off on a radical path.

At last September's regents meeting, he stunned regents and his counterparts at UofA and NAU by abandoning the traditional way universities seek money from the Legislature.

Rather than submitting a request for enrollment funds along with a slew of "supplement appropriations" ranging from construction projects to salary increases, Crow said ASU wanted only two things: money for enrollment and $185 million for the research buildings.

"If you give us those two things, we will take care of everything else, salary increases included," Crow said.

UofA president Pete Likins took immediate notice, instantly realizing that Crow was moving in the right direction by focusing on the importance of expanding research facilities while at the same time reducing the number of individual supplemental requests that a legislature facing a $1 billion deficit would be reluctant to approve.

"It was a brilliant insight," Likins says of Crow's proposal.

So brilliant that Likins tore up the UofA budget proposal on the spot and joined Crow in focusing entirely on the research buildings.

"Not everybody was pleased," Likins says. Some regents were not prepared for a sudden remake of the massive university budgets.

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