Posted tagged ‘Michael Crow’

Where would you find the higher education elite?

February 27, 2018

Last year the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) identified excellence in teaching and learning in United Kingdom universities. When the results were published, a frequent observation in the media, as in this case, was that many ‘elite UK universities’ had been found to be less than excellent. My purpose in reminding readers of this is not to pursue an argument for or against TEF, but rather to ask why particular universities should be classified as ‘elite’, particularly when the narrative is just suggesting that they are not.

Ask anyone to name the world’s ‘elite’ universities, and no doubt without much hesitation they’ll come up with Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton – you recognise the sort of institution likely to be suggested. For the avoidance of doubt, let me stress that these are great universities, and that they have many impressive academics and very smart students. But why would we say they are part of an ‘elite’?

The problem with this form of intuitive ranking is that it is self-perpetuating. When we say that Cambridge is an elite university, we don’t mean that all the evidence suggests it is so, but rather that we know it is so because this is what has been handed down through the generations. This assumption is made and recycled so effectively that the university is able to gather up very smart and ambitious students, willing donors, media supporters and so forth, to the the point where any argument that it is not in the elite will sound absurd to most.

The consequences of this reach into society and the economy and perpetuate all sorts of things we’d rather not have, including significant social inequalities.

But it need not be so. Recently Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and recognised as one of higher education’s most innovative leaders, pointed out in a speech to the US National Governors Association that intelligence is not reserved for students in Ivy League institutions, and that many of the smartest people are in other universities less often associated with the elite. This is not just the case, but needs to be more vigorously asserted if we are to be successful in securing a more open and equal society in which access to influence, money and power is not a form of club membership. And it may be time to think again about the metrics used to determine how close your institution and mine may be to ‘elite’ status.


Could there be a new model for the public university?

August 10, 2011

One of the occasional themes of this blog is this question: what is a ‘public university’, and assuming that it is a desirable institution, how can it be secured and preserved? As I have noted previously, much of the public commentary on this question assumes that a ‘public’ university has that status when it is funded largely by public money; though I have also pointed out that, in my view at least, that is an unsatisfactory approach. What a public university does is much more interesting than how it is funded.

Another approach by some commentators is to argue that a ‘public university’ is one that advances the idea of education as a ‘public good’, or sometimes the idea that education should be pursued ‘for its own sake’. I regard the latter suggestion as rather meaningless: if education should only be offered for ‘its own sake’ – in other words, if we can think of no other reason – then it shouldn’t be offered at all. There are thousands of reasons why people should be educated to the highest levels that their intellectual ability can support, and it is quite unnecessary for us to suggest something as vacuous as education ‘for its own sake’.

My fear has been for some time that the arguments advanced in support of public education have become almost banal, just as the actual issues around education have become increasingly complex. Higher education in particular is now recognised as a key requirement for an advanced economy, for a stable society, for high value research that addresses some of society’s most urgent problems, for a tolerant and cultured population, and so forth. These needs sit uncomfortably alongside an educational theory that suggests that educational institutions should steer clear of direct economic and social involvement.

There is an alternative view of the public university, which suggests that education needs to connect with the world and its problems and arrange its teaching and research to ‘focus on global and local outcomes’. The key advocate of this approach has been Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University. Michael Crow has been recognised as one of the most influential US university presidents, and under his strategy to develop ASU as a ‘new American university’ it has shot up the rankings and attracted a lot of attention. Arguing that the American academy is often surprisingly unable or unwilling to influence decision-makers and society more generally to adopt better ways of solving problems, he has suggested that the university’s teaching and research should be ‘use-inspired’.

While there has been a debate on this side of the Atlantic about public universities and universities as a public good, this has often stopped short of suggesting what any of this means in a practical sense (apart from issues of funding). Whether or not we think that Michael Crow’s ‘new American university’ provides a model that could be used here, it should at least inject an interesting dimension into the debate.

Reinventing the university: conference in DCU

June 4, 2010

As I have mentioned previously, DCU will be hosting a major conference on the future of higher education. This will take place on June 15 and 16, under the title of ‘Reinventing the University: Creating a New Vision’.

Speakers will include the Tánaiste, Ms Mary Coughlan TD; the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority, Mr Tom Boland; the chair of the higher education strategic review working group, Mr Colin Hunt; Dr Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University; Dr Bill Harris, former Director General of Science Foundation Ireland; Professor Colm Harmon, Director of the UCD Geary Institute; Dr John Hegarty, Provost of Trinity College Dublin; and Professor Sir Alan Wilson of the Centre for Adanved Spatial Analysis of University College London. And there’s me, and my successor in DCU. There will also be a roundtable discussion involving a number of participants, including a student representative and Sean Flynn of the Irish Times, which is co-sponsoring the event.

More details are available here, and I hope many readers of this blog will want to be present. All are invited.


A letter from Arizona

December 15, 2008

This blog is coming to you from Arizona. On Monday morning I shall be attending an event hosted by Arizona State University in honour of President Mary McAleese, who is on a visit to the United States right now. At the event President McAleese will be arguing the case for knowledge-intensive investment in Ireland, and others (myself included) will be highlighting the role that universities play in creating the right conditions for such investment. And I shall also mention the mutual advantages that have already been achieved through the strong cooperation between DCU and Arizona State University.

The President will, I am certain, be extremely effective in her advocacy – she is an extraordinarily powerful representative of Ireland’s interests on such occasions.

It will be worthwhile also for the various officials from Ireland who will be present at this event to consider the successes that have been achieved in recent years in Arizona, under Governor Janet Napolitano. The Governor has helped to change fundamentally the strategy of this state. In many ways Arizona has a number of disadvantages. It is relatively peripheral in terms of its location; it has a fairly hostile climate, with desert conditions and temperatures that for several months every year are extremely high; it has not historically had a major industrial presence; it had a deficit of public investment in infrastructure; and until earlier this decade it had a major budget deficit. The geography and climate are of course the same as before, but a lot of other things have changed. There has been a strong focus on public investment within a balanced budget, on innovation and skills, and on attracting and retaining high-tech investment. Two other key people have supported this policy direction: Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, and Bill Harris, CEO of Science Foundation Arizona. 

Like the rest of the world, Arizona has experienced the effects of the credit crisis and the economic downturn. As in Ireland, the state has had to cut or delay funding under a number of headings. However, it has done this in the context of a number of key strategic choices, allowing funding to be developed further for some priority areas and projects. University infrastructure, and education and research more generally, have been supported strongly in the Governor’s budget for 2009.

It is clear that an early economic recovery will be helped – in Ireland as in Arizona – by the resolute pursuit of some key strategic decisions, which will need to involve strong support for higher education. In Arizona it is to be hoped that this policy direction will continue under a new Governor, as Janet Napolitano is set to join the cabinet of President-elect Barack Obama. In Ireland it is top be hoped that that the Government will work with the universities to ensure that there is a funding and resourcing environment that will allow them to succeed as magnets for new high value investment and the development of indigenous enterprise and innovation.