What's next for education in Arizona

ASU's Michael Crow, NAU's Rita Cheng and UArizona's Robert Robbins talked COVID-19, lifelong learning and the future of the state on Feb. 4

Three presidents webinar

While the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive, Arizona’s three public universities have created new ways of teaching and researching that have been so successful, they will continue into the future.

“We’re more open than we’ve ever been,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, who spoke during a webinar sponsored by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 4. The panel discussion featured Crow, Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng and University of Arizona President Robert Robbins.

“We have the largest amount of research activity that we’ve ever had, and it’s accelerating at a faster rate,” Crow said.

“Most importantly, we’ve also expanded our minds. We’re running the university in four or five different ways that we didn’t use to, and what we’re finding is that, ‘Hey, this all works.’”

Cheng said that the pandemic speeded up innovations that were already underway.

“The COVID era has been a great accelerator of transformation,” she said.

“What would have taken years to achieve in a regular world has taken weeks.”

She said NAU has stepped up efforts to widen access to its remote classes, including putting internet hot spots in tribal communities and partnering with K–12 schools.

Robbins said that even as the three universities have collaborated on pandemic research, other types of inquiry have not stopped, such as the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft mission — which is led by the UArizona and includes a science instrument designed and built by ASU.

“While all this was going on down here, that research project continued,” he said.

All three presidents expressed the importance of the universities’ role in researching the virus and communicating discoveries.

“This highlights where true collaboration, not just talk but real collaboration, is between scientists at the universities and TGen,” Robbins said.

“It’s one of the best groups, I think, in the world for contact tracing and genotyping the virus to look for mutations. There’s tremendous work being done.”

All three universities have been deeply involved in testing and vaccinating in the community. Crow noted that ASU designed a saliva test for COVID-19 and has run hundreds of thousands of tests for the public and those at ASU; the Biodesign Institute’s website shows more than a half-million tests total thus far.

Before the pandemic, ASU offered two methods of delivering courses — on-campus immersion or ASU Online, Crow said. Over the past year, the university developed ASU Sync, a synchronous hybrid of in-person and remote learning that’s been so successful that in the fall, ASU will begin offering degree programs built on the new method.

In addition, he described how ASU has reorganized into three main enterprises. The Academic Enterprise includes all degree-seeking operations and the Knowledge Enterprise encompasses research activities. The new Learning Enterprise includes all options for the “lifelong learner,” including K–12 classes, professional development modules, career retraining and other resources for people to access throughout their lifetimes.

“We’ve had an unbelievable transformation of the institution. One of the silver linings for us is that we’re less stuck up,” Crow said of ASU’s work on expanding access to education to everyone in the community.

He said that people need to move beyond thinking of going to college or not.

“Stop thinking it’s a dichotomy, one thing or the other,” he said. 

“We have to change the notion that being able to read is enough or being able to count to 100 is enough or knowing that water boils (at 100 degrees Celsius) as your full complement of science is enough,” he said.

“It’s not enough. People with less lifelong education and less universal education won’t be able to adapt and they will be severely constrained with the speed at which the economy is changing and shifting.”

Cheng said that statistics have shown that people with bachelor’s degrees have fared better during the pandemic.

“Earnings for college graduates in Arizona are 68% higher than those with a high school diploma,” she said.

Cheng, Crow and Robbins also urged the state Legislature to invest in the Arizona Board of Regents’ New Economy Initiative, a plan that would allow the three universities to create more workers in high-demand fields such as engineering and health care.

Crow compared Arizona to a gifted athlete who never reaches their potential because they’re dazzled by their natural gifts and so lack effort.

“What we have in Arizona is this opportunity to lay down the foundation to build on top of the very successful economy that we have — an actual economic growth economy that’s not built on population growth. 

“Right now, the economic success of Arizona is largely driven by massive population growth and that doesn’t work in the long run,” he said.

“What we need is to lay down the foundation with a small additional investment from the state for producing a state-of-the-art, 21st-century workforce at scale that can take on anything and compete with anyone, anywhere, any time — including our rising global competitors.”

Top photo: Clockwise from top left, Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng, University of Arizona President Dr. Robbie Robbins, ASU President Michael Crow and Greater Phoenix Chamber CEO Todd Sanders discuss the state of higher education and the universities' response to COVID-19 at the annual “Valley Voices” event on Feb. 4, 2021. The three university presidents discussed their collaboration on research and solutions for the pandemic as well as the addressing the needs facing the 21st-century workforce. Screen shot by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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