Michael Crow has arrived. The former executive vice provost and science policy expert from Columbia University is now Arizona State University's new president. Crow doesn't mind discussing his successes in stuffing Columbia's coffers (the college consistently ranked first or second among all U.S. universities in income from patent and license revenues), and he'll discuss at length his theory about something he calls "pockets of limited difference." He'll even chat about his salary and compensation package, valued at about half a million dollars quite a bit more than outgoing president Lattie Coor was making after a 13-year stint.
But Crow would rather not talk about Biosphere 2, the multihabitat glass dome just north of Tucson that he convinced Columbia to buy in 1996 . When we met at Beeloe's, a Mill Avenue college-kid fave, I tried and failed not to dwell on Biosphere.
New Times: You went from 11 years at Columbia, a great college, to ASU, a college that's still referred to as up-and-coming.
Crow: Yes, and people ask why. "Where are you moving to? Why are you moving there?" It's about this drive inside me to build things. This is a place that strikes me as unfinished. The city is undone, the region is undone, the social dynamics and everything else going on in this place are such that you don't know where the city's gonna end up. So it's the perfect place to be if you're interested in building a new kind of university. People think that universities are built, they open and they're done. But they grow and evolve, and I want to be in on creating the next wave: building a university that's connected to large numbers of people and is research-intensive.
NT: You vastly improved the revenue from Columbia's research department; it sounds like you have similar plans for ASU.
Crow: Not exclusively. I'll be focused on the more challenging problem, which is to touch the lives of many people, tens of thousands of people at the school and beyond. ASU has been evolving in that direction, but it needs to accelerate its evolution.
NT: That must be what your publicist means by describing you as a "person who's going to move ASU forward." Forward to what?
Crow: Yeah, well. That's a good point. Where are we headed? Really big universities in Rome, San Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, they're not successful in multiple directions. They can't keep up with the student demand; the faculty is overwhelmed. The quality of education has gone down.
NT: This isn't Rome.
Crow: Right, but ASU is one of the biggest universities in the United States, and is likely to be the biggest one day. The challenge is: How do you go forward and improve the ability to do research, and still serve the students? You do that by offering a range of opportunities. Right now, if you want to go to our liberal arts college, we don't have one. But we can build one. A fine arts school? A polytechnic school? Same thing. What we need is a range of programs to attract students with many different interests, rather than telling them, "Uh, you need to be an English major because that's all we've got."
NT: It sounds like you're interested in making ASU a clone of other, more successful universities.
Crow: What a waste that would be. We don't need any more of those. It would be a waste to make ASU into UCLA, although it would be an easy thing to do. The problem here is how do you build a school with research that holds up to national academic standards, while still welcoming large numbers of people rather than a select group of people. It's ASU as a sort of UCLA-Cal State hybrid.
Crow: I know, I know. Who would build that? We want something other than an elite university system that takes only the top kids from the high schools and then tells the rest of them, "You can go someplace else." Forget that. We need to build a place that serves kids from every socioeconomic group you can imagine. Every ethnic group you can imagine. Not just kids studying high-energy physics, but kids studying everything.
NT: Why does there appear to be a new ASU program devoted to the art of the pipe organ?
Crow: What city would want some half-assed fine arts school? We need a great fine arts school, and we're on a trajectory to get one. If you want Phoenix to be on the map, you have to have artists of every stripe.
NT: Well, we'll certainly have one of the few universities with an emphasis on organ playing. So, what about ASU's reputation as a party school?
Crow: What we want is a school that's a lot of fun. Life is not just "study study study, write write write, die!" Life is supposed to be a lot of things. My view of this place is it should be a place where there are a lot of things to do and a lot of different energy. If "party school" means people are goofing off all the time, drinking and not studying, well, we need an environment where that's not the only choice.
NT: Sometimes, if it's your first time away from your parents, drinking and not studying seems like the best choice.
Crow: I don't know where that reputation as a party school comes from, and I don't know if the place is a non-serious school. If you see 5,000 kids out partying, what about the other 50,000? What are they doing? If one group of our students is into some strange style of living, I don't know. The students aren't all like that; they're a polyglot. ASU is a serious place, and a lot of people work hard.
NT: You're being paid a lot more money than former ASU president Lattie Coor, who took a pay cut when he accepted his presidency in 1989, was earning. How'd you swing that?
Crow: By being quite blunt. I said, "Look, this is how much I make now, and I won't come to ASU for less, because I can't afford to."
NT: And they said okay, despite all the flak you've taken for buying Biosphere 2 from a Texas billionaire while you were at Columbia.
Crow: As far as Biosphere goes, no one who has reported on it has even gotten close. Whatever they write about it, they don't even know what they're talking about.
NT: Well, what's happening at Biosphere 2? From all reports, it's not a particularly viable project.
Crow: It's not. It's not meant to be viable yet. We figured it would take about 10 years to run the experiment. I would say we're to the point now that we think it can be viable, and now we have to convince people that we're right.
NT: What is Biosphere?
Crow: Right now it's a small, specialized campus focused on a specialized, integrated, undergraduate education. We've had 1,200 students go through the program down there. They have a new master's program that's just started there.
NT: A master's program at Biosphere?
Crow: Yes 44 students selected from a national competition. They just received one of the Packard Foundation Awards for Interdisciplinary Excellence.
NT: No kidding! Where are their dorms?
Crow: We built them.
NT: You're joking. Like, little plastic domes?
Crow: No, little adobe huts. The facility has about 40 experiments going on right now. Two of them have proven the worthiness of Biosphere.
NT: That many! So, some college students in San Diego produced an opera based on the Biosphere story. Were you a character?
Crow: I don't know about that. An opera? I might have been a character, but I wasn't in the cast myself. I didn't know about it. Do you know something about this opera that I don't know?
NT: Just that it was called Biospheria. And that it was pretty lame.
Crow: Hmmm. Well, I know there was that movie called Biodome. I saw that. It was relatively funny. But you know, Biosphere is one of about a hundred projects I did in the last 10 years, and every one of them was intended to create pockets of limited difference.
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NT: Pockets of limited difference?
Crow: Right. It's the theory that those organizations that are successful are those that adapt the best to the environment around them.
NT: I didn't finish college. So maybe I don't understand what you're talking about . . . . So, if you've done a hundred projects in the past 10 years, why did you get hung with Biosphere in everyone's mind? Because it's a good punch line?
Crow: Because of what went on there before we got involved with it. It doesn't have anything to do with me. But the people who ran that thing before we bought it were way out there. It's like someone abandoned a Cadillac out in the desert, and someone says to you, "There's this Cadillac abandoned out in the desert." And it has gas in it, and it goes. But you're told, "Don't drive it, because it used to be driven by a bunch of nutcases!" That's the attitude about Biosphere. It's like, who would take that crazy project over? We're not doing that project. We're not even in the same realm. The people who used to run it were worried about living on Mars and all this other stuff. We're worried about global warming. Living on Mars never entered our thoughts.