ASU's president tackles reinventing academia the same way he lives his life — full speed ahead

Study Michael Crow long enough, and one’s thoughts will eventually come around to the subject of energy—both the tremendous zest he has for anything he undertakes, and the resources necessary to turn his ambitious vision for developing a whole new kind of research university into being. ASU’s 16th president is just as comfortable on the seat of a mountain bike or on the top of a 14,000-foot mountain as he is lobbying government officials or speaking to international audiences about cooperative research agreements. Barreling up rocky desert terrain on his Trek 8500 as fast as he can is one of Crow’s hallmarks – an activity that illustrates the 50-year-old’s intense personality and drive. It’s also the way Crow lives his life – straight uphill, with determination and enthusiasm.

Crow’s personal image, like his reputation as an educator, often comes across as larger than life, not unlike several billboards featuring his countenance near and in the Phoenix airport.

Don’t let Crow’s “I-can-do-it” attitude fool you, though.

His dynamism is tempered with equal amounts of intellectual wisdom gained from years of study, research, professional experience and lessons learned courtesy of the School of Hard Knocks.

He has manifested a seemingly self-replenishing source of optimism and determination throughout his life. He says he doesn’t know where he gets the energy; fitting more into his day than many administrators can cram into an entire week, he often sleeps less than four hours a night.

His desire to learn from his circumstances, and better them, has become his trademark. And, in time it seems, the trademark of ASU.

Raised in a “crucible”
Crow’s ability to view seemingly overwhelming circumstances as simple challenges was honed during a childhood that reads more like a down-on-your-luck fable than a fairytale. Born in San Diego in 1955, Crow’s mother died when he was 9 years old, resulting in his separation from two younger brothers and a sister for several years. He lived in a dozen different states as a child, moving each time his widowed Navy seaman father was reassigned. He also attended 17 different schools before he graduated high school.

Crow easily embraced new cities with each of the 20 moves he encountered as a child – seeing them as adventures – but it was a conversation with his grieving father that encouraged him to think beyond himself.

“I was on a park bench in Chicago after my mother died,” recalls Crow,
the eldest of his siblings. “My father was crying, and he told me that I really needed to be strong and learn how to take care of myself. So, for whatever reason, I decided then that I was responsible.”

As devastating as losing a parent can be, Crow says the uncertainty that followed his mother’s death taught him that adversity is relative.

“I never viewed it as hardship,” says Crow, explaining that his siblings were divided up among his mother’s three sisters over a two-year period before being reunited. “I just viewed it as challenging.”

During Crow’s peripatetic childhood, he excelled academically, under
circumstances that might have just as easily convinced another student to give up dreams of higher achievement, according to his wife Sybil Francis, executive director of The Center for the Future of Arizona.

“Michael went to schools that I gather were fairly rough – a lot of drugs and alcohol – and I think he looked at all of that and basically decided he
didn’t want to be a part of it,” says Francis. “It’s one of those choices. You either get sucked in and destroyed by it, or you set yourself apart.

“I think the circumstances in which Michael grew up were kind of a
crucible, you might say, of challenging situations that really gave him a sense of determination that might not be quite as strong if his circumstances had been a little easier,” adds Francis.

Crow’s triumphs in uncertain academic settings influenced his thinking about access to higher education. His vision of ASU as a premier public
university is heavily predicated on it meeting the needs of students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I’m very interested in making certain that economic barriers are not one of the reasons somebody doesn’t have a reason to come to a great university,” says Crow, who paid his own way through college and graduate school.

“ That’s one of the things that keeps me motivated here at ASU is that I know we’re one of those kinds of institutions focused on helping others. I know all too well that life is fleeting and you have to work very hard to make things work.”

Guts, gusto and great panache
As a high school and college student, Crow left behind a legacy of guts and gusto: first as a high school heavyweight wrestler and a defensive nose-guard on the football team, later as a javelin thrower for the track and field team at his alma mater, Iowa State University.

Crow’s athletic exploits belied a deeper facet of his personality – that trademark intensity for which he is so well known. Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington and a classmate with Crow in the public-affairs doctoral program at Syracuse University, played softball with him on an intramural team and recalls Crow taking the games very seriously, diving into the dirt and chasing down fly balls.

“No matter how the game was going to work out, Mike was going to kill himself trying to win,” explains Emmert. “Whatever he’s going to do, he is going to do with great panache.”

During that period, Crow was also rehearsing another skill as a student that would come to define him as an adult: finding the connecting points between seemingly disparate academic disciplines and fields of study.

“I’ve always just had lots and lots of interests and I’ve always wanted to integrate things and tie things together, even when I was young,” explains Crow. Such broad interests, he admits, made it difficult to choose an undergraduate major. As a result, he took courses in political science, history, environmental science, engineering and anthropology, unsurprisingly cramming all the extra coursework into a four-year time frame.

Interdisciplinary innovator
Crow developed a reputation for being an interdisciplinary catalyst from the very beginning of his career. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science and environmental studies at Iowa State University, he worked for five years in the energy research and policy arena in centers in Iowa and Illinois. His focus was on developing programs that linked science, engineering and social science to the critical technology and policy questions of the late ’70s and early ‘80s.

After he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Syracuse, Crow was tapped by the Bill Clinton administration to serve as a senior federal government official. Crow declined and instead served as an advisor for the U.S. departments of State and Commerce on science and technology policy matters. Concurrently, he began his academic teaching career at the University of Kentucky and later with Iowa State University, culminating with a position at Columbia University where he was a professor of international and public affairs and eventually executive vice provost.

Higher education’s focus on advancing knowledge for the public good has matched perfectly with his desire to build stronger networks between science and social policy. Crow says he can’t imagine doing any other type of work.

“[The university environment is] the most exciting thing I could possibly imagine. You’re dealing right at the cutting edge of everything. Here we are, we’re shaping this university, connecting to the community – reaching out to families of all types – trying to create an environment where everybody can have access to what we’re trying to do.”

Appetite for knowledge
One of the first places that Crow began to appreciate equal access to
information was the library at Iowa State University. So enamored was Crow that he began a voluntary reading project as a freshman that continued through his senior year.

“I had never been around a great library in my whole life,” explains Crow. “I just really fell in love with the library and everything that it represented,” he said.

He knew he couldn’t read all the volumes in the collection, so he started in the back stack areas, and tried to read at least one book in each subject area. Methodically, he managed to tackle many of the sections of the library, and, incredibly, the map room as well.

“I took one book from every section and tried to become familiar with it,” says Crow. “I wanted to see how the book was structured, what it was about, how the subject was portrayed, what style the introductions were written in, how many words and ideas were in a single paragraph.”

It wasn’t something that your ordinary freshman might choose to do, but then again, Crow has never been ordinary when it comes to his hunger to know more. Crow’s current consumption of printed and electronic material is just as voracious. Each week, he devours up to 25 different magazines, ranging from Vanity Fair and Foreign Affairs to Discovery and Art in America. He is also a fan of history and biographies, having recently read Horatio Nelson’s biography and having re-read Winston Churchill’s “History of the English-Speaking Peoples.”

“Michael is really just a consumer of about any kind of media and information you can imagine,” says Francis. “He channel surfs; he can never be on one thing at once. If he’s on the Web, he’s on five sites. He does Google searches at dinner, Googling some question that comes up in conversation – or on bike rides, he’s actually Google searching.”

Crow says that being the perpetual college student, surrounded by information, has helped satiate his appetite for knowledge.

“But in 33 years of college, you’d think I would know more,” he says, almost in exasperation that he can’t garner knowledge more quickly. “There are always things I don’t know and a lot of things I don’t understand.”
One of the ways Crow keeps his passion for learning alive is to co-teach a science, technology and public affairs course at ASU each semester. Crow’s students describe him as an involved and committed instructor.

“To date, Dr. Crow has answered every e-mail I have sent him,” says Taylor Spears, an undergraduate honors student in Crow’s weekly three-hour, 7:40 a.m. class. “His intensity forces students to take the class very seriously, but he has a great sense of humor as well.”

Ph.D. candidate Ryan Meyer, also enrolled in the course, agrees. “Running a university is commonly seen as an administrative PR-focused job. It’s great that Crow remains actively involved in the academic community. I think
students begin the class quite curious about this enigmatic figure. Perhaps recognizing this, he makes a real effort to engage students in a rapid-fire discussion, encouraging them to challenge themselves and each other.”

All-American guy
In spite of the zest with which Crow consumes and creates intellectual concepts, and despite his revolutionary plans and achievements in academia, he says in many ways, he’s just an all-American guy: He has a soft spot for relish and mustard-smothered hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and baked beans. He enjoys action movies. He loves his wife and kids. He enjoys cooking on the grill, playing computer video games, road trips. He was a Scout Master for a Boy Scout troop.

And, friends say, he has a wicked sense of humor.

“What people may or may not see is that despite that very driven, very focused, very intense sort of personality, he’s also incredibly light-hearted,” says Emmert. “That is what I think makes him so attractive to so many people. He knows how to work and push and press, and then stop and laugh about how silly it is. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously, while being still very serious about what he wants to get done.”

Crow’s grown children from a previous marriage, Ryan, 26, and Brittany, 20, have seen both sides of the intensity-lightness curve. On more than one occasion, they have found themselves engaged in vigorous workouts – in 100-plus degree desert heat – hiking to the floor of the Grand Canyon or biking the craggy precipices of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve trails, with an energetic Dad leading the charge. Every year, for the past 10 years, Crow has made a point of planning a hiking trip with them.

“From canoeing in the boundary waters of Ontario to hiking 14,000 ft. mountains in Colorado, and glaciers in Wyoming – I have always enjoyed our trips together,” says Brittany, a senior history-Asian studies major at Bard College. “My dad always has trouble parting with his BlackBerry, but it’s nice to see him relax once in awhile.”

“I loved the feeling of being hundreds of miles away from where we were going to be picked up – with just me, Brittany and Ryan,” recalls Crow of a family backpacking trip in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park.

As much as these grand adventures may define their relationship with their father, Crow’s older children also remember him as an involved, engaged dad on a day-to-day basis. Ryan, a Ph.D. fellow in international relations at Johns Hopkins University, recalls tagging along with his father during business trips when he was a child.

“It was often just to Washington or even Des Moines, when we lived in Iowa, but we always found time to do something together in between his meetings.”
Today, Crow and his children attend a handful of ASU football games together each year, and communicate daily, discussing everything from international relations and politics to family and the weather.

“Both of my older children have a very strong sense of who they are,” says Crow. “They can say to me whatever they think, they can react in any way, they can criticize me, they can critique me, they can argue with me. I like that they have that opportunity.”

Crow continues to be a working family man, balancing his mountain of commitments with making time for Francis and their 6-year-old daughter, Alana. Like many two-career families, the couple juggles school and work schedules, university engagements and babysitters. But they make a priority of scheduling family nights each week and rate ‘family hugs’ as one of their favorite activities, says Francis. Francis is also deeply involved in Crow’s work at the university, including partnering with him on special projects for the ASU Foundation and engaging major university donors.

After a week filled with the 75 to 95 meetings that are part and parcel of being a university president, Crow and his family are likely to find a hole-in-the wall restaurant where they can relax. And when they don’t go out, Crow is often found in the backyard, playing “race” games with Alana. “She recently broke the ‘world record’ for how many seconds it took to get to the other side of the yard and back,” laughs Crow. “Of course, the world record is very close to what I think she can run.”

Spontaneous road trips – when schedules allow – top their list of favorite to-dos as well. All ocean lovers, the trio has been known to hop in the car on a Friday night and head to California. Those trips, Francis admits, inevitably lead them to another college campus, where Crow indulges in self-guided walking tours.

“He gets ideas – everything from the landscaping to the scientific buildings to signage,” she says. “It just stimulates his brain to think about it.”

He hopes he’s instilling a sense of adventure in his youngest daughter and thinks that might just be the case. “I taught her how to snorkel,” he says. “The first day, she wouldn’t put her face in the water with the mask on. But by the fourth day she was in the ocean. On the fifth day, Sybil and I were out with her a half mile away from the beach.”

In addition to meeting the obligations of his weekly schedule, and carving out family time, Crow insists on making time for community service. He’s currently involved and has served in the past on numerous boards, including the Arizona State Board of Education, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, and the Internet2 Board, which manages an ultra high-speed version of the Internet for teaching, learning and discovery enhancement. He’s served as vice chair and director of In-Q-Tel, Inc., an independent, private, not-for-profit company created to help the CIA and other sectors of the U.S. intelligence community identify, acquire, and deploy cutting-edge technologies. He’s also served as a public sector chair for the Valley of the Sun United Way, and has been a member of the Urban Land Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Volunteering is just part of being a citizen,” explains Crow, “Every citizen has a responsibility to put their energy somewhere.”

Paul Luna, president of the Valley of the Sun United Way, notes that Crow’s involvement as a volunteer meshes with his thirst as a university president for integrating different specialties to solve community issues.

“(Crow) understands that in order for our community to continue to thrive and prosper, all sections of the community must work collectively to create sustainable changes,” Luna said.

Future looks bright
As he looks toward the future, Crow says he hopes to learn and evolve. “I do need to listen more,” he agrees, citing a criticism he heard early in his presidency and one for which he takes full ownership. “I think I am more sensitive now to not trying to overpower someone with the facts. I can store facts in huge quantities all the way back, across lots of subjects, and I would use facts to win debates. Well, I’ve learned that the facts aren’t always the important thing in the debate. Sometimes it’s what people feel.”

One quality that may help him in this quest to listen is his curiosity in other people. “I get inspiration from talking to people and listening to their ideas. I’m inspired by people who do great things and make discoveries, who perform great pieces of music, who can catch passes in the middle of five other people,” says Crow. He’s even been known to grill cab drivers about their experiences and views on life.

It’s that appreciation for different kinds of talents that has made him a talent scout for humanity. Even as a small boy, constantly on the move with his military father, Crow had a knack for seeing the human potential.

“Because we moved around so much, I became very aware of different types of intelligence, different types of ability,” Crow said. “I saw talent everywhere.”

The range of human abilities he has witnessed are so exceptional that Crow worries little about the future.

“All the worries I have about the world, they’re going away,” says Crow. “Today’s students are more mature, broader in their intellectual views … they think about things like environmental sustainability – it’s just in their logic.”

And that may be why Crow, who learned to be responsible quite early in life, has made finding such students, and designing an environment to unleash their potential, a priority.

“ It’s my responsibility to try to do the best I can to help this university to be successful and be of the greatest service to the people,” says Crow.

— By Melissa Crytzer Fry contributed to the reporting of this story.

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