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The giant campus is dotted with palms and cacti and teeming with students in shorts and shades. ”I can imagine 100 000 students, easily,” says the university’s president, Michael Crow. If ­Arizona State University (ASU) reaches that size in just over a decade, it will be the United States’s biggest university.

ASU educates 64 000 students, up from 50 000 in 2001, and projects it will have more than 90 000 by 2020 — if it doesn’t cross the 100 000 mark before then. It ranks third behind the University of Florida and Ohio State University as institutions run by a single administration, as opposed to, say, a system of devolved branches such as the University of California.

But that goal of a record size is simply the means to an end. With one of the fastest-growing populations in the US, Arizona and its capital, Phoenix, are burgeoning and authorities worry that, without more local, affordable higher education, they will fail to educate their resident youth.

ASU has taken on the challenge of offering at least half of the 52 000 school-leavers in the state a chance to study for a degree. This is as close as a university can get to the concept of universal or at least comprehensive education of a population to degree level.

But far from this meaning a mass production of mediocre graduates, ASU also has lofty aspirations to become one of the best public-sector universities in the US, with world-class teaching and research.

Easier said than done when dealing with such vast numbers, perhaps. ASU’s approach is to use the experimental educational genre known as the New American University in its goal to deliver access and excellence.

The idea is to blur the lines between traditional subjects and between academic departments, constantly adapting curricula and research to social needs —often with a deliberately populist approach.

”I was inspired at Columbia but I was not as close to the frontline of social impact as I am here, serving the people directly — without giving up one single inch of what it takes to be great,” Crow says.

Blurring the lines means producing engineers or sociologists, for example, without having traditional departments and degrees bearing those names. Instead, ASU has departments such as the school of human evolution and social change or the school of space and Earth exploration.

It reaches out along the spectrum to the local population bursting with first-generation college students from the mushrooming Hispanic community, to the brightest high-school students in the US and also to progressive academics around the world, often by offering attractive financial packages.

New American University means the ”rethinking of the static organisational paradigms of American research universities,” says Crow, who emphasises what he sees as their role as ”the pre-eminent catalysts for societal change”.

”With such a large and diverse student population in-state, there is no one method of teaching that is the silver bullet, so we have a huge variety in the size and style of courses and classes, online teaching and seminars,” says Dr Quentin Wheeler, who was a lecturer at Cornell University, New York, for 25 years, then keeper of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London, before coming to Arizona. Like many academics at ASU he has only been there for two years.

Currently 22% of students fail or drop out after their first year, a figure the university wants to reduce to 10% within five years. Some go back to a further education college to brush up and then come back to ASU.

The university had been changing fast for about a decade before Crow arrived, but has since been revolutionised. Its budget is $2-billion a year, one-quarter of which is provided by the state, the rest from research grants, tuition fees and donors.

Its research side is expanding most rapidly in biotechnology, urban development and sustainability. ASU is investigating biofuel technology in partnership with BP and working on innovations in diagnostics, rehabilitation medicine (such as intelligent prosthetics) and vaccines (such as methods of building anti-malarial vaccines into the genetic structure of lettuce).

”It’s very applied, or what we like to call ‘use-inspired’ research on an industrial model. We have taken on 700 new researchers in the past five years,” says Rick Shangraw, ASU’s vice-president for research and economic affairs. He is the executive director of the Decision Theatre, the university’s seven-screen computer and visual modelling auditorium, used for everything from forecasting urbanisation to climate-change models.

Crow has $150 000 built into his contract in bonuses if he meets 10 performance goals next year, including an improved place in the influential magazine US News & World Report’s annual America’s Best Colleges rankings.

ASU rose six places this year to 124th, putting it in the magazine’s top tier for the first time.
Sitting in the Decision Theatre with its wrap-around screens and surround-sound, Crow muses: ”We are trying to eliminate hierarchies in the aim for both public access and excellence, and continually to ask, what is a public university? It’s an institution built on who we include, rather than who we exclude,” he says. —

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