Mission: Impossible

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

"It does seem like you would want to be aware of something like that," Watson says. "Nobody wants their president working for the CIA."

Technically, Crow is not a CIA employee. He is a trustee on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization that was created by the CIA with the approval of Congress.

ASU, meanwhile, is not currently engaged in any "classified" research, says Jonathon Fink, Vice Provost for Research.

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.

But Crow's close ties to the CIA and Poste's chairmanship of the Pentagon's bioterrorism task force certainly raise questions about whether ASU is heading down a path that will lead to the university engaging in classified research.

David Gibbs, associate professor of history and political science at the University of Arizona, has long been a harsh critic of academics working with the CIA.

Gibbs points to the CIA's history of clandestine operations that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the overthrow of numerous governments. CIA operations to support dictators and revolutionaries, including Saddam Hussein and elements of al-Qaeda during Afghanistan's war with the Soviet Union, have come back to haunt the U.S.

"The CIA has a very bad record, and I don't think they deserve the public trust," Gibbs says. "Academia should not be associated with this agency."

Gibbs' concerns are not shared by the Board of Regents.

ASU's increasingly close ties to the intelligence and defense communities are seen by the regents and others more as an opportunity to cash in on research grants and enhance the university's prestige rather than as a threat to academic freedom.

"In this day and age of international terrorism and threats from international terrorists, I don't think the general public would have any objections for the ASU president to be affiliated with an organization that fights terrorism," says regent Herstam.

Last January's national collegiate football championship game, the Fiesta Bowl played in Sun Devil Stadium, generated an estimated $154 million in economic impact, according to ASU's business college.

The 1996 Super Bowl in Sun Devil Stadium is credited with generating a $350 million windfall for Arizona.

The Arizona Diamondbacks' four home games in the 2001 World Series were estimated to generate about $60 million to the Valley's economy

Arizona's civic leaders have long pointed to the economic benefits that come from spending more than $1 billion in taxpayer dollars on the construction of sports facilities that will occasionally host major competitions.

But these one-time events spread out over many years pale in comparison to the annual economic impact of ASU and its 10,000 employees.

When all economic interdependencies are accounted for, the spending of ASU students, staff and faculty was responsible for more than 37,000 Arizona jobs and $2.1 billion spending in fiscal year 2002, according to the ASU business school.

And Crow envisions ASU's economic impact on the region dramatically increasing. The linchpin, he says, is gaining legislative approval for the sale of more than $400 million in bonds to pay for construction of the research buildings at ASU, UofA and NAU.

The bill pending before the Legislature would require the state to spend $34 million a year beginning in fiscal 2007 and continuing for 23 years to repay the debt financing, bringing the total cost to the state to approximately $782 million.

The idea of piling on more debt at a time the Legislature is struggling to fill a $1 billion deficit is not an easy sell. A cadre of Republican legislators oppose the measure, saying now is not the time to burden future legislators with a debt for projects with speculative outcomes.

Republican State Representative John Huppenthal of Chandler has dismissed ASU's economic projections as sheer speculation. He voted against the bill when it was before the House.

"I thought it was nuts to be tying up $400 million of our credits on this project," he says.

Huppenthal says he is very concerned the state's economy could continue to stagger and that the Legislature should not issue debt for speculative projects when it may need to borrow money in the near future simply to pay teachers and run prisons.

But the bill's sponsor, Republican Representative Bob Robson of Chandler, says the cost of the proposal is small compared to the potential benefits of attracting additional research to ASU.

"You are potentially changing the economic basis of the state," he says.

ASU projects that construction of its $185 million worth of research facilities will immediately generate $330 million in economic impact, plus an additional $15 million in state, county and city taxes.

Once construction is complete, ASU projects the facilities will conservatively attract another $50 million a year in external funding from federal, industry and private foundations. These external funds will be spent locally, triggering a chain reaction in spending worth an additional $250 million a year in regional economic impact.

Finally, ASU can expect its research to attract a host of new companies to the Valley. Although ASU rates relatively low on the amount of external research grants it receives, the university's research has been very successful in generating start-up companies. ASU already is rated in the top 10 universities in spinning off new start-up companies based on total university research expenditures.

ASU estimates that another $25 million a year will be generated by spin-off companies capitalizing on research.

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