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Branding, Boasting, and Ideology

By Gaye Tuchman

Designing the New American University by Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

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

In the 1980s, Provost Tom Staley of the University of Tulsa was fond of saying, “While the soul of an institution can be found in its curriculum, its conscience can be found in its budget.” Today I add, “And its ideology can be found in its academic plan.”

The title of Michael Crow and William Dabars’s book, Designing the New American University, is misleading. (Michael Crow is president of Arizona State University; William Dabars, also of ASU, has the august title “Senior Research Fellow for University Design and Director of Research for the New American University in the Office of the President.”) The book should be called “What Administrators at Arizona State University Have to Say about Designing Their Academic Plan” or even “How to Justify an Academic Plan in the Higher Education Industry.” Both of those more accurate titles are too long, however, and they might also remind readers that an academic plan, sometimes called a strategic plan, is nothing but a gussied up business plan, marching proudly in cap, gown, and hood.

Designing the New American University is about ideology and branding. As Christopher Newfield pointed out in the April 5, 2015, issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Crow and Dabars don’t discuss how the university operates until page 240. When they do mention specifics, they remember what’s favorable and forget the failings. For instance, they announce that ASU has granted more doctorates to Native Americans than any other university but neglect to say that given the general underrepresentation of this group at ASU and in higher education nationally, this achievement merits only faint praise. (They are the best of the bad.) They identify ASU as one of the world’s elite universities and as the youngest major research university in the United States, though they are not members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and at least one younger research university is. Crow and Dabars don’t find membership in the AAU a significant indicator of status. Rather, as sensible leaders of any institution would do, the authors endorse metrics that bring them praise. Similarly, Crow and Dabars don’t point out that when one tries to implement a business plan, the devil is in the details, not the prose.

Nonetheless, I like ASU’s eightpoint business plan. It explains the university’s mission to be allinclusive, to be open to all who are qualified, to assist the individual and the collectivity, to increase basic knowledge and solve practical problems, to encourage disciplines but to be transdisciplinary, and to help all levels of its community— metropolitan, state, national, and international. Although I would have stated some goals a bit differently and added something about ethnicity and race, I like that the plan aims to “respond to its cultural, socio-economic and physical setting; become a force for societal transformation; pursue a culture of academic enterprise and knowledge entrepreneurship; conduct use-inspired research; focus on the individual in a milieu of intellectual and cultural diversity; transcend disciplinary limitations in pursuit of intellectual fusion (interdisciplinarity); embed the university socially, thereby advancing social enterprise development through direct engagement; and advance global engagement.” As an interdisciplinary scholar, how could I not endorse these admirable aims? They oppose such current practices as the stratification of the American higher education system and disciplinary silos.

It is now a truism that American higher education reinforces both economic and group distinctions by helping to steer some students to for-profit colleges and others to the stratified not-for-profit sector— community colleges, state colleges, private liberal arts colleges, and public and private comprehensive and research universities. On the whole, wealthier students attend the colleges that are recognized as educationally superior. Again and again, Crow and Dabars write that they want ASU to be inclusive, not exclusive. (An institution gains points on the US News & World Report rankings for having both a high rejection rate and a high yield rate.) They want to “maintain the fundamental principle of accessibility to all students qualified to study at a research university,” but the authors never really explain what qualifications they have in mind. Nor do they mention that ASU has undergraduate tracks and a differential cost structure: some campuses and learning centers cost less than others; so do some majors. A university or college earns more money from some majors than others. Online education is more profitable to the university than is traditional (residential) university education. On its website, ASU emphasizes that its online degrees are a really good buy.

Yet Crow and Dabars do not write much about online education, a topic that the ASU website seems to link to accessibility. Designing the New American University correctly explains that residential education tends to work through immersion, that “new technologies promise not only pedagogical innovation but also performance enhancement and cost containment,” and that “in pilot tests of what is termed ‘blended learning,’ universities offering blended courses in the humanities and the sciences report that in some cases students demonstrated mastery of material at a faster rate than by traditional methods.” (Note the extensive use of conditional terms in that last clause.)

ASU’s website for online degrees does not emphasize blended learning. Rather, in his role as ASU president, Crow explains to potential online undergraduates, “We have a duty and a responsibility to make certain that the learning environments that we have the ability to establish are going to be equally available to everyone and this is the way that we do it.” In other words, because students in online degree programs probably find online education relatively inexpensive, it is accessible. And the ASU online programs welcome transfer students who have either financially maxed out or received mediocre grades elsewhere: the university’s online website declares, “More than 90% of ASU students who study online transfer some or all of their credits from a previous college or university.” Because of how the website reports its enrollment, I cannot calculate what percentage of ASU undergraduates are working toward an online degree. But based on the discrepancy between the number of students studying at specific campuses and the total number of students, I suspect it is somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.

Like other public universities, ASU is financially strapped. As at most flagships, austerity, tuition hikes, and out-of-state enrollment are related. According to Newfield’s review, since 1980, Arizona’s legislature has cut higher education’s share of the general fund by half— from 20 to 9 percent. In response, to raise funds, ASU has increased the size of the student body, doubled tuition, and admitted more outof- state students, who pay higher tuition. According to the website, in 2014, 40 percent of ASU students were from out of state. That figure is higher than some flagships and lower than others. In the last ten years, the Connecticut legislature has also cut the percentage of the general budget that its flagship receives, but it has legally controlled the permitted percentage of out-of-state students. Some other flagship universities, such as the University of Michigan, are now properly identified as public privates. Michigan’s tuition is very high, and in fall 2014, more than half of the incoming undergraduates were from out of state.

Crow and Dabars are quick to mention UM’s dependence on undergraduates whose families earn over $200,000 and can pay its considerable costs. They properly note that ASU’s students are more representative of the socioeconomic distribution of Arizona’s residents. They boast that many students receive financial aid, but they forget to mention their own nasty tuition hikes and to explain how hikes are calculated in relationship to a university’s “discount price”—the average cost paid by students who get some aid. The wealthy few who pay the sticker price subsidize the discounted costs charged to the less prosperous.

Reviewing the philosophy of higher education in both Europe and the Americas, explaining the histories of the major types of American higher education institutions, and correctly declaring that both higher education and most other societal institutions are becoming more rationalized, Crow and Dabars ignore one issue: How is their business plan related to our country’s emerging socioeconomic structure? It is a difficult question. In their 1968 study The Academic Revolution, sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman suggested that at the turn of the twentieth century the rise of professionalism in both universities and disciplines helped to mold a shared culture among (male) members of the emerging managerial middle class. After World War II, the expansion of higher education was coupled with the expansion of corporate jobs, a trend analyzed in such books as William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man and Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd.

But what has been going on in recent decades? In the spring 2015 issue of Dissent magazine, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom considers the relationship between higher education and the growing economic schism between the wealthy and the lower and middle classes. She asks, “What is college when there is no middle?” and continues, “In the 1950s the labor market presented us with a social contract, and higher education responded. But . . . [current] economic forces [have] killed the company man.” The old social contract has disappeared: “For those of us looking for economic security who are not fortunate or able enough to be fast-tracked into the good jobs, there isn’t much college can do.”

Crow and Dabars want ASU’s enrollment to be inclusive, they want the university to be successful, and they praise a computer program, eAdvisor, that “helps students to find majors in which they are likely to succeed, keeps them progressing toward a degree . . . and allows the university to manage enrollments effectively, thereby saving money.” I wish that in making such budgetary bets about what the future will bring universities Crow and Dabars had thought harder about how universities produce graduates who fit into their society and had written more concretely about what the emerging social contract might be. Instead, they reiterate their belief that universities are rational enterprises and say that universities prepare the individual for an indeterminate future. That’s just not enough.

Gaye Tuchman is professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Her books include Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University and Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. Her email address is

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