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Designing universities of the future


ASU Sync classroom
December 16, 2020

On Dec. 8, Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Convergence Lab CDMX hosted a binational discussion on how institutions of higher education have been addressing the many challenges presented by COVID-19.

ASU President Michael Crow and Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey President David Garza joined the virtual event to compare notes on the lessons of 2020 and explore how universities can continue adapting their design and innovating to create a better future for all.

Mia Armstrong of the ASU Convergence Lab hosted the discussion. 

“In addition to the shared experience of confronting the challenge of 2020 as a higher education institution, these two presidents and their institutions have an extensive track record of cross-border collaboration, including a joint executive MBA through our business schools, high-impact research on water and sustainability, the modeling of North American energy futures through our Decision Theater network and rule of law programs between our law schools,” Armstrong said.

The conversation began by focusing on what successfully preparing students to succeed in the world has changed in light of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, automation and rapid technological advancement. Armstrong asked Crow to define the “fifth wave of higher education,” the topic of his most recent book, “The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education,” and how it intersects with other economic and cultural phenomena. In the book, Crow traces the development of American higher education institutions across four waves of historical development and then proposes a model for a fifth-wave institution.

“Some of us thought it’s time for a new wave,” explained Crow. “The previous waves were driven by the forces of the country, the democratization of the country and so forth. The fifth wave, of which ASU is a prototype, are research-intensive universities. In many ways sort of an American version of Tec (Tecnológico de Monterrey). In fact, we learned many things in my almost 20 years of visiting Tec and engaging with Tec. That was scale, commitment to all of the citizens, commitment to the entire life cycle of education — high school, college, everything. The fifth-wave universities are highly democratized, research-intensive, scalable, high-speed, technologically driven institutions — very much in the spirit of the scale and diversity of the United States.”

Garza also reflected on his thoughts on the model for the fifth-wave institution and the design aspirations he has for Tecnológico de Monterrey in the future.

“You can see the type of world we are living in, and how we need to reflect about that impact that we need to have. Something that I have been sharing with the community is that I would like our institution to focus in the coming five years on the three 'I’s,'” Garza said. “The 'I' of innovation, the 'I' of research — which in Spanish is investigación — and the 'I' of internationalization. I think by doing that we can increase the positive impact of our university.”

Before shifting the conversation toward the problems that fifth-wave institutions should focus on solving, Armstrong polled the audience and the panelists on an important question: “Do you think that North American universities are designed to conduct research that will help our communities confront existential challenges like the pandemic or climate change?” Crow detailed how ASU has been assuming fundamental responsibility for the social, cultural, economic and overall health of the communities it serves.

“We now have a starker understanding of what we didn’t do, who we didn’t educate,” he said. “That we have an unprepared population who doesn’t understand what a virus is, that we have unprepared schools that have difficulty managing through a complex moment requiring very significant resilience. We have initiated a huge internal reassessment of ourselves relative to what we do, how we do it and how we’re working. Having said that, what we are doing in the immediate moment, very similar to David and Tec, is everything we can possibly do to lower the barrier between the university and our intellectual assets and our creative assets in the community.”

The final topic, voted on by the audience, was how higher education institutions can prepare for the next crisis. Armstrong asked the panelists what crises are at the top of their mind and what we need to prepare for in the future.

“I learned recently this concept of ‘wicked problems,’” said Garza. “I think that that’s the main aspect we are facing. We are going to be facing more frequently these wicked problems, a problem that is very difficult to solve. There is incomplete, contradictory information, there are many stakeholders with different opinions and there are large implications: industrial, economic, social, environmental, personal beliefs and so on.”

Crow explained that a key feature of the fifth-wave institution is working toward a more collaborative — rather than competitive — approach to solving these “wicked problems.”

“This pandemic got away from us almost immediately and it’s not back in the bottle yet,” said Crow. “It’s not back in the bottle because we still can’t figure out how to work together in many ways. We should not be assembling once a crisis occurs. We should already be assembled. Already working together.”

The event concluded with a joint announcement for the two universities, as Crow and Garza signed a memorandum of understanding expanding existing collaboration between the Tec and ASU student exchange programs. The  Acceso ASU program gives bilingual ASU students an opportunity to take Tec courses online, earning credit toward an ASU degree, providing access to a binational education experience marked by excellence.

“Mexico and the United States are very close first cousins,” said Crow. “We have finally brought ourselves to this point because we are modernizing and culturally evolving and moving in the right direction. One aspect of that is the relationship between Tec and ASU. Two universities in two different countries that have the same vision for the future.”

Launched in 2017, Convergence Lab CDMX is an Arizona State University project that seeks to connect the university with Mexican audiences and partners to explore ideas of mutual interest, through a series of public events and ambitious ideas journalism. Convergence, either between academic disciplines or nations, is the order of the day, and Convergence Lab offers a forum to learn from each other and think our way to a better, shared North American future.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.

Top photo by Deanna Dent

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