Not so long ago, Arizona State University had a mediocre reputation mainly known as being a top party school.
And then in 2003, Dr. Michael Crowe was tapped to become ASU’s president, and all of that changed.
Today there are a total of nearly 70,000 students on ASU’s four campuses in the Tempe and Phoenix urban area, and Crowe has garnered a national reputation as a transformative leader.
But to the Atlanta delegation that was visiting Phoenix as part of the annual LINK trip put on by the Atlanta Regional Commission, the most important contribution that has occurred under Crowe’s leadership is the relationship between the university and the metro area, particularly downtown Phoenix.
The result is the New American University — a bold declaration designed to make a national splash, according to Grady Gammage, an attorney and an ASU faculty member at the Morrison Institute of Public Policy.
One of Crowe’s provocative statements early on was: “Do you replicate what exists or do you design what you really need?”
Clearly, the answer for Crowe was to design something new. Gammage summarized it this way: “We embed the university in the community. We do research in the community that is relevant to what we need. We increase the size and quality of education. We do that by not excluding students but by bringing them all in and giving them a good education.”
The result? “The level of success is really unbelievable,” Gammage said of ASU’s progress under Crowe.
But even more remarkable is the bond between the city and the university.
“The linkage between ASU as a new institution and the City of Phoenix as a new pay is part of the DNA,” Gammage said. “We are trying to invent a city and an educational system hand-in-hand, at the same time.”
Integral to this connection is the new light rail line that connects downtown Phoenix with downtown Tempe, the largest and oldest of ASU’s campuses.
“Light rail is succeeding because of ASU students,” Gammage said.
But it’s also true that the downtown areas of Tempe and Phoenix are being revived because of light rail.
Currently, there are 20 miles of light rail in the Greater Phoenix area, according to Bryan Jungwirth, chief of staff for Valley Metro Transit and president of the Arizona Transit Association. The public transit system has been so successful that another 37 miles are under development.
“Light rail is doing well beyond its estimates,” Jungwirth said, adding that actual usage of the light rail system is 34 percent higher than what had been projected. And weekend ridership is as high as weekday travel on light rail, proving the popularity of the system.
The inter-relationship between the university, the downtown areas and light rail shows a formula for success that could easily be transplanted in metro Atlanta.
In fact, despite all the fanfare that ASU is receiving, it still is not considered to be among the top 50 universities in the country. However, it has improved its rankings, from being above 100 before Crowe, to about No. 60 today.
But compared to Atlanta, and its universities, ASU does not look nearly as good, Gammage said.
“You have got us beat on every turn,” he said. “We talk a good game… But we would kill for the quality of institutions that you have…. The good thing (for us) is that you have many and we have one.”
Gammage went on to say that in national rankings Georgia Tech, Emory University, University of Georgia and Georgia State University overshadow ASU.
To the Atlanta delegation, it was clear that ASU, its president and Arizona in general had done a better job to leverage the university as an economic development tool than Georgia has been able to do in selling its universities.
It also showed that Georgia’s institutions would be well served to coordinate and collaborate as a way to enhance each other and the entire state.
The trip also reinforced the power of transit as a way to build those connections. A streetcar linking GSU, Georgia Tech and the Atlanta University campus would enhance our reputation as a college town/university city.
And it’s not just light rail. It showed that the vision to connect UGA, Emory, Georgia Tech and GSU by a commuter rail would really create a brain train in the state.
Atlanta delegates also learned of ASU’s commitment to reinvigorating downtown Phoenix and becoming a resource for public policy issues in the region. If GSU President Mark Becker had been on the trip, he would have been able to witness the role that the Andrew Young School of Public Policy could play in the Atlanta region and the state.
Unfortunately, no top academic leader from the Atlanta region was on the trip to seize on that idea and bring it home to Georgia.
But ideas have a way of percolating. The 100 Atlanta leaders who did go to Phoenix outlined a series of initiatives that they could carry home. High on that list was leveraging our universities to improve our cities.
It’s quite clear. There’s a powerful link between universities, transit and cities. And this is one area where metro Atlanta can learn from Phoenix.