ASU chief banks on creativity

Financial freedom is initiative's goal

William Hermann
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 4, 2004 12:00 AM


Arizona State University President Michael Crow and his staff have cooked up several innovations for next fall designed to get his school ranked among the best in the United States and eventually bring it millions of dollars during a time of reduced state funding.

Crow is cutting class sizes in scores of math and English sections, enlarging the size of the Law College faculty by 25 percent and creating a relationship between the Law and Honors colleges that promises to attract some of the nation's top aspiring attorneys.

And unlike the $500 million being spent for the new Arizona Biodesign Institute, ASU's greatest hope for bringing in big grant dollars, Crow's new efforts are being done with little cash outlay.

The plan is similar to ASU's recruitment this year of a record number of National Merit Scholars. The Tempe school raised financial aid available to those top-flight high school graduates and was able to recruit 173, third-highest for a public university, up from 105 the previous year.

"It was the best thing that could have happened for ASU's academic reputation," Honors College Dean Mark Jacobs said. "We believe it will attract still more good students. And the more good students you have, the better professors you attract, and so on."

The "and so on" is that top-notch professors bring in big grant dollars. And since a university can rake off up to 50 percent of grant money, the equation works out this way: High academic ranking attracts good students, who in turn attract good professors, who create innovative programs that attract more grant and contract dollars. That money helps fuel the university.

"Our business college is now named the W.P. Carey business college because Mr. Carey saw that it was something he wanted to attach his name to, it was promoting business ideas he had as well. It was a college of such high quality that it was doing something he could buy into," Crow said. "But we had to have a very high-quality business college before the grant would come. That's the way it works. Quality attracts resources."

The ASU business school's MBA program climbed to 29th from 37th in U.S. News & World Report rankings released last week.

Carey gave the business college $50 million last fall. Getting private gifts and government grants like that are a university's ticket to getting out of the sort of financial distress tight state budgets create.

According to information ASU supplied legislators, in fiscal 1984, the state investment in Arizona universities was 14.5 percent of General Fund revenues. In 2004, it was 10.64 percent. When adjusted for inflation, ASU receives $1,088 less in state funds per student in 2004 than in 1990.

That's why Crow & Co. are trying so hard to be so creative with so little.

"What we are evolving ourselves into is an enterprise that attracts good faculty, that attracts better students, and that attracts more resources from all sources, whether from Mr. Carey or others," Crow said.

That's just exactly the kind of talk that Arizona legislators like Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, want to hear. Robson believes strongly enough in Crow's entrepreneurial model for raising funds that he sponsored the legislation that is building the Biodesign Institute.

"This is a system in great need of dynamic change and moving forward with visionary practices, practices that will count tremendously to the value of education received, and the funding as well," Robson said.

Law College Dean Patricia White plans to build her school's programs and reputation, in part, with the help of Barrett Honors College.

"We already have several faculty teach at the Honors College as part of their teaching loads," White said. "We give special mentoring to Honors College students interested in legal subjects. We also allow some of those students into some of our seminars."

Undergraduates' involvement in the law program means they will have an inside track into the ASU law school, White said. That means a lot. Last year the Law College had about 3,200 applicants for only 180 spots.

The dean of the Honors College said it's good for him, too.

"We love having this new recruiting tool," Jacobs said. "No law school we know of in the nation allows undergraduates into the real law classes; now we can tell high school seniors with an interest in law that if they come to the Barrett Honors College, we can get them into law classes and give them a leg up on Law College admissions. That's a very big selling point."

White is looking for other ways to improve the reputation of the Law College, and Crow intends to help her by allowing the hiring of nine new faculty members. That 25 percent increase in law school teachers will lower the student-to-teacher ratio to 9-1.

The faculty additions will cost about $1 million, money that is not in the budget.

"We will find the money," White said. "We may have to go raise some of it ourselves, but we will find it."

Crow says White may indeed have to raise some of that money.

"A definite revenue source has not yet been identified," Crow said. "It's important we find the money for the great people, because those great people will attract more resources."

White says she'll bite the fund-raising bullet to pay for the new faculty.

"We will have the best student-teacher ratio in the U.S.," White said. "That is important to our reputation."

A low student-to-teacher ratio is important universitywide because it's one of the criteria U.S. News and World Report uses in its annual ranking of the nation's colleges. It's a ranking that has gained great influence among high school students and so is deemed very important by administrators like Crow.

An ASU administrators work group called Project 85 has been given the task by Crow to find ways to bring ASU's ranking up to at least No. 85, from 137. And they have hit upon a way to possibly make a jump in the ratings.

If ASU can offer significantly more classes with fewer than 20 students, then the school will almost certainly move up in that particular category.

So, this fall, the number of basic mathematics and English classes will be taking a big jump. And because teaching assistants and adjunct faculty cost far less to pay than tenure-track faculty, many more of those low-cost folks will be hired and thrown into the newly created classes.

Nevertheless, it will cost about $1.7 million to hire the new teachers, school officials said.

"The money will come from tuition revenues and/or state appropriation, assuming there is additional state appropriation," school spokeswoman Nancy Neff said. "This will be one of our highest priorities."

For the fall of 2004, ASU will add 50 English sections, upping the total to 230, and 70 entry-level math sections, bringing that number to 189.

Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News and World Report, gave a qualified "this can make a difference" in regard to ASU's efforts to raise its ranking.

The addition of classes could mean that the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students could go from about 29 percent to about 35 percent, Morse said.

"That could help them, but there are so many variables I can't say with any certainty how much it will help them," Morse said.

It is Crow's belief that this relentless drive to raise ASU's academic stature will eventually set the school on the path to financial independence from the Legislature.

"We are an idea incubator; that is our job," Crow said. "We need to attract students and professors to work at the highest possible level.

"The resources will follow."