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A different appoach to governance at ASU

Locus of Authority deftly chronicles the emergence of shared governance as a means to further university goals, and its ossification into an end in itself and a barrier against which transformative changes crash.  As my colleague Deanna Marcum elaborates, university leaders interested in pursuing innovations in online learning and other areas have sought to evade sclerotic shared governance processes through various workarounds, such as new, agile subunits and incentive programs.

Such approaches are often marginal, providing an opportunity for the willing few, while leaving the unwilling many to their own devices.  But what if the workaround were made the norm?

A recent Ithaka S+R report on the ambitious redesign effort underway at Arizona State University, provides some insight.  Michael Crow, president of ASU since 2002, has focused on promoting entrepreneurial efforts to further a set of broad university goals.  This approach has reshaped the institution, leading to the consolidation of departments and schools into interdisciplinary units, launching a vibrant online division and other new organizations, and revolutionizing student advising.  Crow’s efforts have also reshaped the administration and faculty, attracting to ASU and empowering within it those who appreciate the vision and leading those who disagree to depart.

Shortly into his presidency, Crow established a “vision” for ASU that has remained consistent during his tenure:

“To establish ASU as the model for the New American University, measured not by who we exclude, but rather by who we include and how they succeed; pursuing research and discovery that benefits the public good; and assuming major responsibility for the economic, social and cultural vitality and health and well-being of the community.”

The vision statement—buttressed by detailed, aligned goals and targets for a half-dozen key performance measures—has become a north star for the university.  As numerous administrators told us, there is always disagreement about the means, but it is very hard for anyone to argue that the mission is inappropriate for a public university.  It serves as a shared language and criteria for evaluation of new and existing activities.

Crow coupled this vision with a strong emphasis on entrepreneurialism.  Crow and senior administrators encourage all levels of the organization to generate new ideas that further the vision.  They have not shied away from risk, approving significant changes in established structures and putting resources behind initiatives that show promise.  ASU Online is an important example: a new leader was given the authority to rebuild this signature initiative from scratch after initial efforts were found to be insufficiently transformative.  Similarly, consolidating numerous departments into interdisciplinary units was a huge risk that has apparently paid off, achieving its efficiency goals while also catalyzing new approaches to research and teaching.

Not every initiative has worked out—and many have produced harsh critics—but Crow has maintained his approach in the face of the failures and the criticism.  As a result, over time, there have been fewer and fewer internal critics.  Faculty and administrators who disagreed with the approach at the outset left the institution or adapted to it.  Faculty and administrators at other institutions who admired the approach flocked to ASU.  Eventually, there developed a critical mass of “buy-in”—interviewees consistently estimated the current buy-in rate at about 80 percent.

ASU has made some progress toward its performance targets and its vision of being “the new American university.”  It still has a ways to go.  But the change in governance is palpable: the entrepreneurial exception has become the norm.

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