President Barack Obama will speak today at the commencement for Arizona State University -- the mega-university that set off a firestorm of criticism when it denied the commander in chief the honorary degree it typically confers on its graduation speakers last month.
Officials at Arizona State University said last month it would not offer Obama an honorary degree because "his body of work is yet to come" and most recipients already have a staggering body of achievement.
But the school was forced to flip-flop after the degree flap when it became a national punchline.
Obama's speech today will most likely signal his direction in education policies and goals for his administration. He plans to speak about higher education, and places such as ASU will be at the forefront of efforts to expand college access.
In recent years, the sprawling university has felt more like a booming company than a college. There is a new campus in downtown Phoenix and a newly expanded campus in nearby Mesa, along with dozens of new programs and hundreds of new faculty. As the state population has exploded, enrollment has surged by a third in eight years to 67,000 students, among the highest in the country. There are plans for 10,000 more within five years.
ASU's president, Michael Crow, insists his university can be both great and big — with both world-class research and mass-scale teaching. He calls the experiment the "New American University" and it's being closely watched nationwide.
"If there is a prototype school on track and designed to fulfill (Obama's) mission, we are it," said Crow, who became president in 2002. "We're open, we're accessible, we're high quality — all those things that he talked about."
But there are also cautionary tales in ASU's experiences. Some aren't persuaded high quality and rapid expansion are compatible. And after years of blistering growth, ASU has been hit hard by the economic downturn — a reminder that Obama's target will be hopeless unless the economy starts growing again.
In his address to a joint session of Congress in February, Obama called for every American to pursue some form of education beyond high school. The United States has slipped to 10th in the world in its percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with an associate degree or higher.
In Arizona, a board of regents study found the state must double its number of bachelor's degrees in the next 12 years just to meet the national average. Meanwhile, Hispanics — one-third of the population — enroll in college at less than half the rate of whites in the state.
Those challenges intensified this year when the bust of Phoenix's real estate-based economy curtailed tax collections and the state cut $88 million of ASU's funding. The school had to cap enrollment, freeze building projects and lay off 900 administrators, support staff and part-time teachers. The student newspaper called Crow's "New American University" the "Neutered American University."
As the Legislature considered even bigger cuts for the upcoming year, Crow reluctantly raised the possibility of closing two campuses.
Such worst-case options now look unlikely, thanks partly to federal stimulus money and a tuition surcharge approved last month. Full-time professors have kept their jobs but are picking up extra classes and handling clerical tasks that used to fall to support staff. Enrollment is expected to rise slightly next fall. Crow calls the economy a "100-year storm" but insists it won't derail his long-term goals.
Even before the downturn, Crow had critics who thought ASU was trying to do too much.
"At times, it seems like the university wants to be all things to all people," said John Chance, an anthropology professor on the Tempe campus. "We want to admit as many students as we can, and we want a topflight research faculty. We want to do them all. I, for one, have personal doubts of whether that is possible."
For students, ASU offers endless choices, including more than 250 programs and majors. But personal attention is a challenge. The latest federal figures show ASU's six-year graduation rate is about 56 percent — about the national average.
Colin Miller, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, lives in Tempe but likes to take classes at a campus 25 miles away.
"I don't mind driving this far for smaller classes," he said. But this year he had trouble getting into the courses he needed because they filled up so quickly.
In conjunction with Obama's visit, ASU is expanding a key financial aid program and renaming it for the president, who has also called for the United States to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. The level of family income needed to qualify for ASU's program will go from $25,000 to $60,000, and the number of Arizona freshmen who will benefit next fall will more than triple.
Meanwhile, ASU has risen into the top tier (No. 121) in the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings. The school has lured dozens of big-name faculty and lavished resources on an honors college that has attracted 674 National Merit Scholars during the last four years.
Crow has also won over many faculty with his relentless defense of higher education as the Legislature considered budget cuts. In February, faculty senators from ASU's four campuses approved a resolution supporting him 68-4.
"We are coming out with a serious problem," sociology professor and faculty senate president Gary Grossman said, "but because of the actions of the administration, it has not been catastrophic."
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