Political Corporatism: ASU and Scottsdale

Today’s Scottsdale Republic has a full-page “My Turn” opinion piece by Arizona State University president Michael Crow. I think Crow has gotten more column-inches in ‘our’ newspaper lately than many of the Republic’s reporters.

Is it me, or does the Scottsdale Republic seem like it’s bucking to merge with the ASU State Press? In an irony you will appreciate as you read on, the most recent story I read in the State Press was about students seeking sugar daddies to help pay for the ever-increasing cost of ASU tuition [Seeking a sugar daddy].

I started this article several months ago. However, there was a campaign to wage, an election to lose, and regrouping to consider. For the last couple of weeks I have been consumed by preparing for the Arizona Town Hall “visioning” workshop that will begin this morning. As we consider updating the foundation of Scottsdale’s General Plan, a statement in Crow’s column struck a nerve.

This [Arizona] is the new part of the United States. This is where we’re not fighting against decades or longer of complex unresolved issues relating to the struc­ture and dynamics of cities. This is a place where we’re still able to move, still able to adapt, still able to innovate.

That statement caused me to dig for the draft of this article and finish it. Crow’s stream-of-consciousness approach to writing (obviously, he’s not a graduate of his Cronkite school of journalism) doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. But this statement sounded the alarm bells.

Not fighting against complex, unresolved issues relating to the structure and dynamics of cities? I don’t think Mr. Crow lives in Scottsdale. It would appear that the only part of the Scottsdale Republic he reads is his own column.

As far as ability to innovate, Crow’s greatest innovation is a mechanism called the ASU Foundation, which exists to remove money from the pockets of Scottsdale taxpayers. ASUF alone has caused some pretty significant “complex, unresolved issues” for Scottsdale.

In August, Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb wrote critically of Crow’s reign at ASU. In particular significance to Scottsdale, Robb notes the SkySong campus purchased by Scottsdale taxpayers, leased to, and developed by ASU Foundation (the investment arm of ASU) represents a significant chunk of property shifted off the property tax rolls.

This obviously means that Scottsdale taxpayers have to make up the difference for providing municipal services such as police and fire protection that would have been funded by those property taxes. As such, the property tax break represents a subsidy for what is essentially a taxpayer-subsidized commercial office building that competes with, and drives down value of the rest of the struggling commercial office market in the area.

In September, the Arizona Republic printed a typical (for them) puff piece news article about Mr. Crow, that contained some glaringly unsubstantiated economic impact numbers provided by the Greater Phoenix Economic Council.

And then in October, the Republic gave Mr. Crow his own, more direct rebuttal to Robb’s criticism.

Soon after, the Republic published an opinion column critical of Crow. The writer, Geoffry Clark, is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Here is Professor Clark’s column.

ASU’s ‘business model’ may end up tarnishing golden decade

The recent article on Michael Crow’s tenure at Arizona State University caught my attention because it underscores a deep and worsening philosophical divide in high­er education between those who regard universities as analogous to corpora­tions and think they should be run that way (mostly career administrators) and those who see universities as primarily intellectual enterprises governed by academic core values (most faculty).

Asserting that the university is an idea (and not an ideal or an ideology), Crow claims that size, scope and reli­ance on external resources are central to the ferocious competition funda­mental to science, and that it is the universities themselves — and not corporatism and capitalism — that are driving the sweeping organizational changes Crow envisions as essential.

We all recognize that significant change must occur because of declining public sup­port for higher educa­tion. We all acknowl­edge Crow’s very real and important contri­butions to resolving the funding issue, such as more public/private partnerships, more construction and greater research visibility.

But there’s a price to be paid. With the “business model” comes the “busi­ness culture,” a culture many faculty find repellant. While clearly “ideas,” most faculty would maintain that uni­versities are also “ideals,” manifest in a value system that is among the first casualties of an administrative strategy that is antithetical to the openness, collegiality, meritocracy, rule-governed procedures, balanced curriculum that academics hold dear.

Sometimes called academic corpora­tism, this approach is a derivative of political corporatism, an economic strategy based on a partnership be­tween an authoritarian state and key leaders in the business community. The parallels between political and academ­ic corporatism are striking, and like its political counterpart, academic corpo­ratism often results in dictatorships, with all ideas coming from the top, and nothing going the other way.

Academic assemblies and unions are neutralized or eliminated altogether. Faculty are disenfranchised. There is a chilling effect on free speech and the notion of an open marketplace for ideas, often accompanied by intimida­tion, threats, insults and other expres­sions of contempt for the faculty. The sweeping administrative turnover that is so much a part of leadership transi­tions in U.S. public universities also results in the hiring of administrators who, out of a blend of ignorance, self-­interest and cowardice, will not ques­tion authority.

There is a lot of faculty and staff turnover. Coupled with rapid change, relentless expansion and unparalleled increases in enrollment, the entire institution can become ungovernable, its curriculum unrecognizable, its edu­cational mission jeopardized and any aspirations its faculty might have en­tertained for a better, brighter future are compromised.

Bravo, Professor Clark. Perhaps we can persuade you to study Scottsdale politics a little more closely?

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