What Is New About the New American University?

By Christopher NewfieldApril 5, 2015

Designing the New American University by Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars

THIS BOOK ARRIVES blurbed by the national heavyweight politicians Bill Clinton and Jeb Bush, a similarly bipartisan list of university presidents, and a prominent scholar of higher education, Jonathan R. Cole, who describes it as “arguably the most significant book on higher learning since Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University, published more than a half-century ago.” This comparison has surface plausibility. Kerr was an architect of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education (1960) that set tuition at zero and quality at an unknown upper bound. High levels of public funding were to make possible the novel idea of mass quality. Kerr oversaw the creation of several of the University of California’s 10 campuses, and structured the post-Sputnik boom of research funding and student enrollments into what most still see as the best public university system in the world.

Michael Crow has been trying to do something similar in a very different state, Arizona, in a very different era of austerity and of free-floating hostility to publicly funded social development. He is also more on his own among college presidents than Kerr was in his day: their pay has soared, but their public voices have not. Almost alone in his cohort of heads of public universities, Crow has a plan, a brand (the New American University or NAU), and years of practical experience as the head of Arizona State University during a period of impressive growth and financial crisis. What does Crow know that the other presidents apparently don’t?


One thing he knows is that you can’t make the sale with ambivalent defenses of your product. Crow doesn’t concede to his opponent’s criticisms in an effort to sound reasonable. He and his co-author, ASU research fellow William Dabars, claim up front that “America’s research universities are the most transformative institutions on the planet — or in the course of civilization.” The university is so important that it takes on “fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural, and overall health of the communities it serves.” In a nation of struggling states and impoverished municipal governments, Crow’s NAU is to pick up where the country’s other public institutions have failed. Clark Kerr made his “multiversity” the central institution in the “knowledge industry” that had by the late 1950s become “central to the conduct of an entire society.” Crow and Dabars anoint the NAU as contemporary society’s indispensible institution.

Crow’s second conviction is that the large research university has a useful structure. Many higher education journalists and consultants have been demanding the university’s unbundling into simpler tasks and outputs. Universities are degree factories, they assume, and to cut costs their governments could split the credentialing function from research and isolate training programs from comprehensive four-year degrees. Students would pay for exactly the workforce knowledge they need and not a dollar more for something extra. The downside is that this would destroy the comprehensive cognitive development that an integrated curriculum is designed to produce. Crow and Dabars defend cognitively advanced integrated education via a robust defense of the liberal arts as the necessary complement to technological training. They also value the scale and complexity of the university’s administrative systems, which have to accomplish more different kinds of things than their corporate equivalents, and which have developed real skills in combining them. They set themselves apart by describing university administration as a complex orchestration of multiple goals that better serves our dauntingly complicated societies than corporate-style command-and-control. For all its cost, the NAU’s administration is not just bureaucratic bloat but a multifaceted instrument of social development.

Crow and Dabars present the NAU as the global knowledge society’s most important institution, one that functions through synthesis and integration rather than unbundling. These features support the NAU’s central goal, which is mass higher education of top quality and enormous scope. They categorically reject the tradeoff between “large-scale enrollment” and “academic excellence.” They define the NAU as transcending “the contesting claims of excellence and equity.” They oppose the common equation of selectivity with academic quality. Ranking systems, led by U.S. News & World Report, treat higher selectivity as an index of higher quality; colleges are rewarded with higher scores for rejecting higher proportions of their applicants. A small stratum of American colleges has ensured their position at the rankings summit in part by engaging in an annual orgy of applicant rejection. A generation ago, Harvard rejected “only” 80 percent of its applicants. Now it rejects 93 percent. Crow and Dabars detail the extent to which highly selective private colleges make only a minor contribution to the education of the country’s approximately 20 million college students, though they have a near-monopoly on the education of the country’s corporate and political elites. Crow comes closer than any university president to calling the nation’s elite schools passé, even irrelevant. “The gold standard institutions,” he and Dabars write, “represent an elitist model that remains to a remarkable extent impervious to change, aloof from society, and inaccessible to the majority of Americans.”

This high selectivity has also infiltrated the public university flagships. In 1964, Clark Kerr noted that UC Berkeley had surpassed Harvard in the number of departments ranked in the nation’s top six for each discipline. This was a time when UC Berkeley was semi-open admission: if a state resident had a B average in the required subject courses in high school, she was admitted. Now Berkeley rejects 83 percent of its applicants, the great majority of which are fully qualified to attend. One cannot argue that Selective Berkeley is better than Open Berkeley was: in terms of rankings, the opposite is the case. And yet senior managers and most members of the faculty treat the rising tide of rejection as a sign of excellence.

The first phrase of Crow and Dabars’s NAU formula is that an NAU is “measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed.” They describe ASU’s increases in inclusion (chapter 7) in the midst of the country’s inequality boom, while at the same time, ASU’s research expenditures — a standard metric of research activity — increased by a factor of 3.5. And yet ASU didn’t try to match increased research by improving its student body through increased rejection. It expanded the size of the first-time freshman class by 50 percent and minority enrollment by 124 percent. By 2013, nearly 40 percent of the ASU student body was first-generation students, and similar inroads occurred at the doctoral level: “ASU ranks first in the nation for doctorates awarded to Native Americans in all disciplines.” These are important verifications of the NAU’s claim to deliver democratically accessible higher education (to the top 25 percent) while continually enlarging the scope of research.

These achievements also lend credibility to Crow and Dabars’s claim that the NAU can be its region’s engine of civic progress, since this level of cross-racial inclusion has occurred in a state better known for outlawing Mexican-American Studies in Tucson, mounting militia border patrols, giving law-and-order zealots a free hand, establishing English as the state’s official language, and having one of the country’s weakest rates of high school continuation into college (39th). As the paradigmatic NAU, ASU has made a successful effort to take the state’s low and racially skewed college continuation numbers and improve them significantly in a dozen years.


But granting their anti-elitist goals, what about Crow and Dabars’s means of achieving them? This is a different matter.

The means are bound up in their concept of design, to which they give talismanic importance. They are driven by a sense that the eclipse of design by humanity’s “limited knowledge, brute force, and an overwhelming arrogance” has created an unsustainable world.

And yet if we look at the university that design is to produce, what we see is very similar to the large, urban, public universities we already have. Since World War II, they have been asked to be all things to all people, and Crow and Dabars don’t design a university that cuts some functions while expanding others. The NAU is to “establish national standing in academic quality and impact of colleges and schools in every field,” be a “global center for interdisciplinary research,” and also be fully embedded in the local environment. This is what public universities — UC Irvine, Queens College — have been trying to do for decades. Their missions include teaching the masses while conducting Nobel Prize–winning research, serving local needs while achieving global visibility, curating each student’s creative capabilities while competing entrepreneurially with Stanford and MIT for private donations. Each mission makes sense in itself, and its combination with many others is precisely what has produced the administrative bloat and the resource conflicts that are hurting the public university today. Crow and Dabars note that “individually none of the basic tenets or design strategies delineated is especially remarkable,” and that is true. The strategies take on importance in interaction with each other. But this interaction among many diverse goals — eight, in their version — is what has burdened the current system with constantly growing costs. In short, NAU “design” doesn’t offer a novel public university structure as much as it revives the grand mission of the postwar public university in all its primordial ambition.

This is fine with me — full-tilt public ambition is what today’s public universities generally lack. But we need to know that This Time It’s Different, and why. The “super-public” research university is exactly the model that states have spent three decades defunding, which has worked hand in glove with a range of privatizations that have reduced access and hurt quality while multiplying tuition charges and ballooning student debt. As one example, Crow and Dabars point out that the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, poster child of allegedly successful privatization, recently had more freshmen from families making more than $200,000 than from families in the bottom half by income. Did the NAU avoid the fate of privatization and elitism in Arizona? If it did, how did it do so?

The authors don’t get into the specifics of the ASU case until page 240, and when they do compare their vision to ASU’s reality, the problem of permanent austerity returns. Arizona’s state legislature cut higher education appropriations 32 percent from 2006 through 2011. Then the legislature delivered another 25 percent cut in 2011–’12. While I was writing this review, they voted another 14 percent cut for 2015–’16. As a share of Arizona’s general fund, higher education spending has been cut in half since 1982 (from 20 percent to 9 percent). While ASU was working on its eight NAU goals and making some impressive progress, its public funding base was being cut exactly as though it were the Old American University that has become a political whipping boy.

ASU’s response to these public cuts has been similarly traditional. Arizona was one of four states that saw its public universities double their tuition fees between 2006 and 2011. (California and Hawaii being two others.) ASU student loan debt now averages something over $21,000, up about 20 percent since 2008. ASU has used ever-increasing student body growth to generate ever-increasing enrollment revenues. Many of the new students were assigned to branch campuses or to online programs where costs are lower. Meanwhile, Crow was trying to increase other revenue streams (corporate partnerships, philanthropy) by raising ASU’s research prestige, which means offering special working conditions and internal subsidies for research teams on whose productivity ASU’s rankings climb would depend. Crow played the conventional game by growing enrollments and then using these revenues to support research outputs and reputation. To the extent that ASU uses low-cost enrollment growth to cross-subsidize showcase research, the NAU is welding its superstructure to a traditional budget base.

It is at this point that Clark Kerr’s ghost returns. His Master Plan of first-, second-, and third-class educational resources (the three-tiered system of UC, Cal State, and community colleges) is a permanent temptation. It expands access but stratifies quality via unequal levels of expenditures. The system no longer works socially, as Crow and Dabars argue, since it now reinforces dysfunctional levels of inequality. It also no longer works economically, when the US is merely average among industrialized nations in college attainment, and the world has nearly half a billion college graduates. In bare functional terms, what is the point of offering second- or third-class credentials in the United States, when hundreds of millions of students have access to ever-improving college quality in dozens of nations around the world? Crow and Dabars do not provide the specifics of a response to this central challenge of ever-rising global instructional quality.

What is new in the New American University is its exasperated anti-elitism. Crow and Dabars openly oppose this developing caste system, citing research showing that “college education today is reinforcing social stratification” rather than mobility. But it is one thing to object to a norm still set by “the fifteen ‘gold standard’ institutions in the late nineteenth century” and another to design the democratic alternative. If the NAU actually helps re-democratize the US economy and society, it will have widespread appeal. If it continues today’s trend of universities ratifying social inequality, it will wind up on the dust heap of halfway measures.


In order to escape that fate, Crow and Dabars put their faith in a series of design concepts, with names like “invisible colleges, communities of practice, epistemic communities, and firms construed as knowledge-centric.” There are four main ideas here. First, design needs to respond better to the external environment. Second, theory and practice must interact continuously. Third, this interaction must express itself as collaboration across traditional disciplines. Finally, true design is an adaptive process that evolves through the interaction between “the two ‘spaces’ — problem and solution.” The designers’ sense of the problem changes through iterative attempts at a solution.

This last principle is more momentous than it at first appears. For real design rests on full contact among all of the process elements. To put words in the authors’ mouths, design depends on the immersion of the solution-seekers in the problem itself, such that they cannot escape back to the safety of their preconceived notions or their closed administrative cultures. Since the solutions change through the effort to implement them, the designers, the objects being designed, and the context need to remain in continuous contact that is not steered or structured from the outside. The objects must talk back, and the designers must change in response. Design attends to but cannot be dominated by forces that are external to the process — budgetary needs, donor preferences, political demands, and so on. Crow and Dabars mention the World War II–era “skunkworks” that massively accelerated aircraft development. Its key feature was that the design group had near-total autonomy from senior management. In addition, design groups need to be nonhierarchical, a term Tom Kelley used to describe “hot teams” at his legendary IDEO design lab in Silicon Valley.

So far, so good. So why don’t all universities become NAUs so they can engage in nonhierarchical acts of local engagement and transformative self-redesign? The actual reason is not that faculty innately oppose Crow and Dabars’s design vision, but that they have been gradually pushed out of the design practices that did exist and that went by names like “shared governance.” The dominant public university trends have been increases in the number of contingent faculty, which reduces the academic freedom that is crucial to fearless, original design input; top-down budgetary control, through which financial officers have final decision rights over academic initiatives, which also reduces the academic freedom that is crucial to fearless, original design input; and the increased influence of external donors, sponsors, and politicians over the university’s internal activities, which does more of the same. The typical public university today is closer to a managerial autocracy than it was in the postwar period. Autocracy is corroding the intelligence, the trust, the flexibility, and the viability of the public university. It is a major obstacle to the structural changes that all corners of the university world, from students and faculty to frontline staff, would like to see.

This is where a president of Crow’s stature could model the innovation he demands, which would mean telling other senior managers that they have been the problem and not the solution — that they need to open up the design process. There have been times in American business history when executives realized they had somehow screwed up, and were willing to ponder variations of “liberation management,” to use Tom Peters’s 1990s phrase. You’d think this would be one of those times in university history. But I was unable to find any such call for post-autocracy in this book. At crucial points, the authors trundle in villains from central casting: “Faculty committees tend to deliberate while shifts in policy, culture, and technology flash by at warp speed,” etc., etc. Collaborative design cannot possibly move forward when the executive party feels entitled to judge (and lecture) the rank-and-file designers on the basis of off-the-shelf imperatives about disruptive innovation. Crow and Dabars miss an opportunity to advocate for fully inclusive collaborative design techniques. I wish they were as anti-managerial as they are anti-elitist.


If a still-managerial design theory is one main weakness of this book, the other is its silence on funding. It’s expensive to elevate the educational capabilities of most of a population, as Crow’s NAU demands. The failure of Udacity’s online remedial courses at San Jose State University showed that nontraditional students are precisely those least likely to benefit from cost-cutting technology. Fulfilling the promise of students who used not to go to college requires intensive, small-scale instruction, creative mentoring practices, and other activities that can’t often be standardized to cut expenses.

Socially useful scientific research also costs the university money. Crow and Dabars engage in the standard administrative practice of citing growth in gross research revenues without talking about net research returns. The former are positive but the latter are negative. The unfortunate fact is that big-time STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) research loses money for institutions. On average, research universities spend about 20 cents of their own money for every dollar they get in extramural funding. ASU has the standard research cost profile of an up-and-coming institution that has to buy its way up the rankings. National Science Foundation data shows that in 2012, it ranked 58th in total R&D expenditures and had to spend an above-average share of 28 cents on the dollar to subsidize these hard-won grants. That meant almost $135 million pulled out of the university’s general fund to support its nominally federally funded scientists.

The authors know that the next step for public universities will be closer ties between instruction and research, to create what is sometimes called “research learning.” They also know that the NAU will stand or fall on its ability to replace the elitist model of public universities with something more democratic. But to achieve these upgrades, the NAU needs to offer an educational quality that is in the same ballpark as that of elite private universities. Cal State LA isn’t Stanford, but the difference between them shouldn’t be so big that we get a caste system in which Cal State LA grads are worker bees always on the verge of being automated by Stanford grads who use their enhanced creative capabilities to make all of society’s big decisions.

I was reminded of the size of this problem by a recent New York Times Magazine story called “The Stanford Undergraduate and the Mentor,” about a student-mentor relationship that led to sexual assault charges. While the article focused on the stories surrounding the charges, I hardly got past the gateway to the alleged crime, a superposh seminar in which the student was paired with a wealthy 29-year-old startup entrepreneur who would become her boyfriend. As part of “her self-designed major in management science and neuroengineering,” her professor “matched Clougherty’s team of four students with two mentors.” This Stanford student was self-designing a major that included a class with a 2:1 student-faculty ratio.

Meanwhile, back at UC Santa Barbara, my well-ranked public research university, the students in my lecture course on Noir California had a 170:1 student-faculty ratio, plus a 25:1 student-TA ratio in a weekly hour-long discussion section. Because I nag the 170 mercilessly, about 30 of them came to my office hours at least once. They are a fantastically interesting composite of talented multinational California — some undocumented, one-third of them bilingual, many from families that lost their houses in the financial crisis. Most have unexpected stories, and sometimes more expected ones, like that from a student with 98 percentile SATs and a 3.9 GPA whose tiger mom finally showed some love when she got rejected from Stanford. I would like to see all 170 of my students for at least an hour a term, which is not much. But that would add 140 office hours over 10 weeks, or 14 hours a week to my schedule, and I already work about 70 hours a week on average. (A UC workload study once found the average UC faculty week to be around 62 hours.) I thus don’t actually have another 14 hours per week to offer my students the hour per quarter that a Stanford student gets from her mentor every week. In short, any democratic redesign of public universities has to figure out how to pay for increased individual attention, or it won’t make much difference.

And yet, Crow and Dabars follow the beaten path and take increased investment in public college students off the table. In an intelligent commentary on one of my books, they write, “the remediation for systemic inequality that [Newfield] suggests — ‘proper financial support for full access to mass quality, to high quality on a mass scale’ — is utopian and represents an unattainable societal goal,” Utopian? Well yes: cross-class equality of college investment is utopian, in the same sense that environmental sustainability is utopian. Neither has ever been practiced, and yet their practice is essential to making a necessary goal a reality, whether that goal is climate stability or the democratic distribution of higher learning.

Is closing the private/public funding gap also unattainable? Not at all. Two of my University of California colleagues calculated that cutting tuition in half and replacing it by increasing state outlays to 2000–’01 levels at both UC and Cal State (with 700,000 students together) would cost the median California taxpayer, each year, an extra $31. The project is called Keep California’s Promise. Do we need to start a Promisekeepers movement for public officials, so they give the current, minority-majority generation the same affordable access to high-quality college they gave their mostly white parents and grandparents?

It would seem so when even Michael Crow, one of the country’s most outspoken university presidents, is unable to level with the public about the need for public reinvestment as the only funding source big enough to fend off the four horsemen of public college mediocrity — limited individual student attention, administrative autocracy, unfunded university subsidies of STEM research, and mission shifts away from education to auxiliary businesses. All four can be turned back: the country can afford immersive research learning for all students, can design post-managerial collaboration, can fully fund STEM research, and can recover public funding levels it had already sustained for two generations. We’re not doing it because our political and business leaders have other priorities.

Crow and Dabars are right to want new public universities to replace the Harvard standard. Their book is worth reading just for that discussion. They also support “massive change” and celebrate moon shots. So then, how about these two moon shots? First, use ASU to model nonhierarchical collaborative design, design that replaces finance-driven restructuring supervised by academic executives. Second, call for the doubling of public funding of public universities (which shouldn’t be difficult as we have recently halved it), in tandem with a halving of tuition (which shouldn’t be difficult as we recently doubled it). Make “free college for all” a medium-term national goal. We did free K–12 a century ago. We did a moon shot for the actual moon. We can obviously do the same thing for correctly funded 21st-century public colleges and universities. But we need people in Crow’s position to tell the truth about the power shifts and the public money that the next-generation, democratized public university will require.


Christopher Newfield is a professor in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

LARB Contributor

Christopher Newfield is distinguished professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara and director of research at the Independent Social Research Foundation, London. He is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), among other books.


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