Mission: Impossible

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

Crow unleashed a full-court press on the Legislature to convince lawmakers that the research buildings would yield substantial, ongoing financial returns and should not be viewed as a painful expense.

He quickly drummed up support from more than 300 business leaders, who sent letters to lawmakers urging passage of the bill.

He also engaged in a somewhat manipulative media campaign that involved Crow's enlistment of Intel chairman Craig Barrett to prepare a letter of support. Crow personally reviewed drafts of Barrett's letter and gave his approval for the letter on March 20. Barrett later circulated the letter under his signature to Valley media.

ASU's president Michael Crow
Emily Piraino
ASU's president Michael Crow
Arizona regent Chris Herstam says he didn't know about Michael Crow's CIA affiliation prior to Crow being named ASU president  in March 2002.
Arizona regent Chris Herstam says he didn't know about Michael Crow's CIA affiliation prior to Crow being named ASU president in March 2002.

Crow also hired Republican gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Representative Matt Salmon at $8,000 a month to lobby Republican legislators. Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano already has expressed support for the plan.

The legislation, introduced as a strike-all bill late in the session, passed the House 41-17 in early May. But the bill is now stalled in the Senate, where it has yet to be introduced. Senate Republican leaders are holding up the bill, seeking to force some reluctant lawmakers to first pass a bare-bones budget before addressing the research bill.

Salmon says he believes Senate President Ken Bennett will move the bill to the floor for a vote after the budget is passed, but that may not be for several weeks.

"If it gets to the floor, I think it will pass," Salmon says.

If the bill dies, ASU could elect to sell bonds backed by its own resources, but such a move would likely run into resistance from bond rating agencies, which are already troubled by ASU's relatively high outstanding debt.

The research legislation is crucial to Crow's blueprint to advance ASU into the big leagues of academia.

If the Legislature approves the research funding bill, Crow says ASU will use its $185 million share to build five research facilities, focusing heavily on integration of biological sciences and technology. Those facilities include:

• $60 million for Phase II of the Arizona Biodesign Institute. (The first phase of the institute is already under construction.)

• $53 million for construction of newly created School of Life Sciences.

• $35 million for construction of an Information Science and Engineering Center.

• $13 million for construction of a Nanotechnology and High Tech Materials building.

• $14 million for ASU West for construction of a research center.

Crow's drive to increase external research funding at ASU might have unintended consequences.

Regents president Jack Jewett is very concerned that the Legislature will further slash the universities' operating budgets in exchange for agreeing to spend money on the research facilities.

"That's always a risk," he says.

The Legislature has already cut the universities' budgets by $110 million over the last two years and is seeking another $40 million cut this year.

Another worry is that the Legislature will take advantage of the $1,000 tuition increase approved last winter by the regents, and reduce the universities' appropriation by an equal amount to help balance the budget.

Such a move would further aggravate an already dire situation, Jewett says. The universities already are having a hard time keeping professors because of low salaries, and many existing buildings are in need of repair.

On a longer-term basis, regent Chris Herstam says Crow's drive to increase external funding may provide the Legislature with the excuse to further abandon its responsibility to fund the universities -- despite a constitutional provision that requires university education in Arizona to be nearly as free as possible.

"While I agree with Dr. Crow's research strategy, I, at the same time, do not wish to throw in the towel on relying on the state general fund," Herstam says.

Crow's focus on biosciences and engineering has also irritated a number of low-salaried professors who have struggled for years in disciplines that Crow appears to have little interest in, such as the social sciences and fine arts, where research grants are far less plentiful than in the hard sciences.

"I would say the morale is as low as it has been in the 30 years I have been here," says political science professor Sheldon Simon.

Skeptics note that while ASU may not be in the top 75 universities pulling in federal research grants, ASU has already achieved significant recognition as a major research institution. Since 1994, ASU has been one of about 60 public universities classified as Research Institutions by the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching.

Critics also say Arizona's universities appear to be betting too heavily that they will be able to capitalize on the growing biotech industry. Although the industry has fallen on very hard times the last year, it is still the latest darling of economic development officials across the country.

"Everybody has turned like lemmings to biotechnology as the next big thing," says Joseph Cortright, a Portland State University economist who co-authored a 2002 Brookings Institution report on biotechnology.

Nearly 40 states and most major metropolitan areas have now embraced biotechnology as the way to stimulate ailing economies. Cortright predicts that most of these efforts will fail to achieve the hoped-for results.

Cortright says that nine regions now dominate the biotech industry and it is very unlikely that an upstart like Arizona will be able to make significant inroads unless the state is willing to invest at least $300 million a year for the next decade.

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