Mission: Impossible

Arizona State University president Michael Crow rolls across the conference room floor in a chair, grabs a potted plant and begins a lecture on his vision for ASU to become the world's leader in biodesign.

"This plant is biodesign," he says.

"Nature, evolution, designed this plant. This plant can convert light into energy. This plant can move water. This plant can communicate chemically. This plant can operate in a range of environments. This plant can produce energy and produce no heat as an offload. Every machine we build pollutes, produces heat. It's disruptive. What we have not figured out yet is how to duplicate this.

"How do we figure out how to mimic nature? Through mimicking nature, how do we figure out how to make our systems more environmentally sustainable?"

ASU's newly created AZ Biodesign Institute, Crow says, may answer these questions. The institute will house researchers from a wide range of academic disciplines focused on solving these types of problems.

If they are successful, the payoffs could be immense -- from medical applications such as allowing quadriplegics to walk to a financial bonanza.

"We think there are huge economic possibilities," Crow says.

Since storming into Tempe last July as ASU's 16th president, 47-year-old Michael Crow has wasted nary a nanosecond in focusing his boundless energy on such formidable challenges.

He's dedicated his academic life to attaining the position he now has as president of one of the largest public universities in the nation. He's earned this title at a relatively young age.

Now, his goal is clear: to transform ASU, the nation's fourth largest university with 57,000 students, from a school famous for parties and future NFL stars into a research powerhouse that someday will rival the most prestigious of Ivory Towers.

"My main reason for coming here is that this is the most unique opportunity in the country to build a new kind of university," he says.

It will be a university that is focused simultaneously on conducting fundamental scientific research and developing marketable technology, a one-two combination Crow has studied for the last 25 years.

Carefully implementing his design for a "New American University" developed over more than a decade while a top administrator at Columbia University in New York City, Crow doesn't worry about bruising a few academic egos, especially those of his desert brethren, in his relentless effort to lift ASU above its current second-rate trajectory. Tenure, for example, is not to be taken for granted.

Crow is far more concerned at the moment with securing legislative approval to build the first new research facilities at ASU in more than a decade. Crow's plans to turn ASU into a major research institution hinge on the Legislature approving a plan to spend more than $400 million for research buildings at ASU, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. ASU's share is about $185 million, nearly half the total pot.

And, as if reshaping ASU into the Stanford of the Desert won't be challenging enough, Crow wants more. He also wants ASU to serve as a catalyst to catapult the Phoenix economy from one based on rapid growth into a knowledge-based economy that will attract the world's top intellects, artists and craftsmen to the Valley.

He sees no reason Phoenix can't develop a dynamic cultural identity on a par with San Francisco.

After a year on the job, his bosses at the Board of Regents are duly impressed with his vision, but somewhat cautious of the projected outcomes.

"He's really brought an extraordinary vision to Arizona and helped us all think on a much bigger scale," says regents president Jack Jewett.

At the same time, Jewett is not expecting too much, too fast.

"In my experience, there are no silver bullets," he says.

Whether Crow's grand plan is even remotely achievable in Arizona's lowbrow political climate remains to be seen. But Crow's connections at the highest levels of academia and government indicate he might have the right stuff to succeed in such a bold endeavor.

Perhaps his most interesting connection -- and the one that may have significant ramifications for ASU -- is his tie to the Central Intelligence Agency, a relationship that was never openly discussed during his lengthy interview process for the job of running ASU. His intimate association with the agency was not known by the selection committee when he met with regents in March 2002.

The fact that a prospective candidate for president of a major public university is on the board of directors of an organization whose sole client is the CIA should have been grounds for serious debate.

The CIA's notorious history of atrocities, assassinations and support of tyrants who later became U.S. enemies has made the agency taboo on most American university campuses since the Vietnam War. Then the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001 cast the CIA in a more necessary, even favorable, role.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty