Don’t sneer at Arizona State

Pete Stroud

In April 2011, UT System Board of Regents chairman Gene Powell released a memo outlining his goals for the UT System and UT-Austin in particular. Powell proposed UT increase undergraduate enrollment by 10 percent per year for four years and cut tuition costs in half. It was immediately apparent that his recommendations failed to answer some basic questions: Where would the extra students sleep? Where did he plan on finding professors willing to teach for free? Additional state funding was out of the question — Powell’s math didn’t add up.

But the UT community’s response to Powell’s proposal had undertones of something darker. Students, alumni and faculty all attacked the idea that we should make our school a little more affordable and open to a wider demographic. “There are already dozens of online colleges and dime-store diploma mills scattered across this country and this state,” railed one Daily Texan editorial, “but there is only one University of Texas at Austin.”

Opponents of Powell’s proposal directed a significant part of their criticism at Arizona State University. In the past decade ASU has undergone a radical transformation and now dedicates itself to “matching excellence and access in the same institution,” in the words of ASU president Michael Crow. Despite detractors’ claims, since Crow’s arrival 10 years ago, Arizona State has been doing a lot of things right. Minority enrollment has nearly doubled and nine times the number of low-income Arizonan students are enrolling per year now than in 2002, according to Time Magazine. At the same time, research funding granted to ASU more than tripled from $120 million to $373 million between 2002 and 2011, says ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

Rather than cutting costs across the board like critics had predicted, Arizona State has begun several research initiatives that are attracting national recognition. These include a Biodesign Institute that looks to nature for insights into issues such as disease prevention, green energy and national security. There’s also ASU’s one-of-a-kind School of Sustainability in which multi-disciplinary faculty and students devote themselves to solving problems related to  water overuse, nonrenewable energy and out-of-control urban development. I would compare these institutions to their counterparts here at UT, but none exist.  

Due to these successes, ASU has been steadily climbing in the rankings to become one of the nation’s better-regarded state universities. Nobody’s saying it’s as good as UT yet, but it’s closing the gap.

When the critics of Powell’s proposal for UT single out ASU, they single out a school that, in many respects, is remarkably similar to their own. Both UT and ASU are enormous universities that are mainstays on every “top party school” list. Both offer thousands of classes taught by high-profile professors in just about every discipline imaginable, and the two campuses themselves are practically interchangeable. There’s even a man-made reservoir called Town Lake in close proximity to both. And, as someone who has attended both schools, I can personally attest that the only difference I’ve noticed so far, academic or otherwise, has been the color of the shirts people wear on game day. Although I’m thrilled to be here, and will be immensely proud to have the UT letterhead on my degree; I also couldn’t be happier with the education I received at ASU.

Despite all of ASU’s achievements, some people won’t give it a fair hearing. At the height of the Powell memo controversy, former UT Student Government President Natalie Butler sent a letter to the Board of Regents, aghast at the possibility that UT might start emulating ASU’s new policies. “ASU wanted to be an institution defined by its high degree of inclusiveness and ability to manufacture a significant number of degrees at a low cost,” Butler wrote. “UT-Austin, rather, is defined by its academic rigor, excellence, and support for the intellectually curious.”

According to Butler’s logic, Arizona State doesn’t strive to challenge its students or be “excellent,” whatever that means, and its students are not intellectually curious. Another way of phrasing that would be that ASU students are ignorant and stupid. The letter continues, “I wanted to be challenged, to grow intellectually, and to go to a school where I would be surrounded by students with similar drive. I knew I would find none of these things at ASU.” Add “lazy” to the list of Butler’s adjectives for ASU students.

In her letter, Butler offered no evidence for these arrogant and insulting claims beyond her own “general impression.” The temptation to invite her to jump in a lake aside, her dismissive attitude is symptomatic of a larger problem.

Public universities are far too concerned with class size, exclusivity and other such antiquated and elitist measures of what makes a school good. A bad professor teaching a class of 10 students is not preferable to a good one teaching a class of 200. Public universities should pride themselves on how many students they’ve given a quality education, not how many they’ve denied one.

It’s a shame that Gene Powell is the face of the push for affordable degrees at Texas public universities, because his support for the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s infamous “Breakthrough Solutions” has forever branded him as a political reactionary. But we shouldn’t so easily dismiss the idea because of its source.

Stroud is an international relations major from San Antonio.