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Morrison Institute builds bridge between ASU, communities

September 29, 2008

Over the years Arizona State University has had a substantial impact on the state of Arizona in terms of education, health care, sustainability, urban policy and the economy. Inherently linked to its surrounding communities, ASU has been a pivotal agent in serving the needs and advancing the competitiveness of Arizona and its residents.

Nowhere else is the university’s connection to the state more visible than in the work and mission of ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. As ASU celebrates  its 50th anniversary, one can see in Morrison Institute’s eclectic history the university’s role in helping solve the state’s most pressing issues of the day.

Since the mid-1980s, Morrison Institute has researched public policies that impact greater Phoenix, the state and the nation. The efforts of scores of staff members, faculty associates and graduate students have informed, advised and assisted Arizona’s leaders, providing a bridge between the university and its communities. Concerns and outlooks have evolved over time, even as the state’s fundamental growth-related challenges in such areas as education, urban growth and economic development have remained constant.

The institute began when Marvin and June Morrison wanted to help Arizona’s leaders make wise choices in the face of rapid growth and dramatic change. Through the urging of their son Richard and others, they chose to create an applied public policy institute as their vehicle. They selected Arizona State University as its home to ensure credibility, scholarship and independence – and to be close to the action at the Arizona capitol.  

Sparking debate on issues, challenges, choices

From the first major statewide study of urban growth to the initial analysis of the Sun Corridor as Arizona’s “megapolitan” region, with more than 200 studies in between, the institute has provided not just facts and figures, but scenarios and choices for Arizona’s future.

In 1988, the Morrison report “Urban Growth in Arizona” brought to light ideas and opinions that still resonate today: How can Arizona’s urban growth be funded? How can Arizona maintain an adequate water supply for its growing areas? In the view of all this growth, what is happening to the quality of life in Arizona? In the 2001 Arizona Policy Choices report “Five Shoes Waiting to Drop on Arizona’s Future,” Morrison identified five fundamental trends including at the time the state’s leadership crisis and its “fuzzy” economic identity. Addressing these challenges before the shoes dropped was a call to action that couldn’t be ignored. It asked policymakers to marshal the skills and creativity of Arizona’s residents to ensure a prosperous future for the state.  

By 2005, in “How Arizona Compares,” Morrison Institute answered “just fair” to the critical question of where this state stacked up relative to others. It answered which state is wealthiest or healthiest? And how does Arizona’s home ownership compare to other states? The reference work provided a unique point-in-time view of the state.

More recently in 2007, for Pinal County, Morrison Institute showed the common ground between leaders and residents, and suggested 17 “cool tools” that formed the basis of the county’s public involvement process for its comprehensive plan. This year in “Megapolitan: Arizona’s Sun Corridor,” the scenario for the Arizona’s more-than-metro region shows sufficient progress and pain to prompt the question for all Arizonans: in 2035, do you want to live in the Sun Corridor?

Defining the “next big thing”

Before there was a knowledge economy, there was the “new economy.” As business people, educators and policymakers struggled to understand the fundamental shift to an economy based on brains instead of brawn, Morrison Institute provided a primer. In “The New Economy,” Morrison looked beyond the tech revolution, defined the terms, and identified the policy choices for Arizona.

Most recently, in partnership with the Global Institute of Sustainability, Morrison helped to explain why sustainability is “the issue of our age” in their report “Sustainability in Arizona.”

Providing a foundation for new policies and programs

When the Arizona Department of Education funded a multi-year, multi-million dollar statewide initiative for at-risk students in the 1990s, Morrison Institute evaluated the programs and identified what worked and why. The results prompted a change in the state’s funding formula. With domestic violence identified as one of the most common 911 calls everywhere in Arizona, Morrison began to research this topic.

In a series of reports and briefing papers, starting in 1997 and continuing today, Morrison Institute has described the effects of Arizona’s “mandatory arrest” law on the attitudes of law enforcement officers, judges, prosecutors, probation officers, victim advocates and victims. Arizona’s courts are using the data on high-visibility judicial committees to review Arizona’s policies. In metro Phoenix, a grassroots network is also using the information to help communities see how to better match programs to local needs.

In “Economic Development Via Science and Technology” from 2003, Morrison evaluated where Arizona stands compared to other western competitors to determine what Arizona needed to do to better take advantage of building its science and technology economy.

Nurturing young people’s interest in public policy

With the annual Young Stewards for Public Policy essay contest, Morrison offers any high school senior in Arizona the opportunity to compete for a scholarship to ASU. Students are asked to analyze a specific public issue affecting the state and its residents, and to include specific recommendations to Arizona policymakers on how that issue should be addressed. The essays are judged by a committee, including editorial writers from The Arizona Republic and Tucson Citizen. The winning essays are published in both newspapers.  

Chris Herstam, chairman of Morrison Institute’s board of advisors, asserts that in his 25-year career, including stints as a legislator and state agency director, he has benefited from Morrison Institute’s research and community involvement.

“As a young state legislator in the 1980s, I recall the Morrison Institute conducting educational seminars and legislative orientation sessions for freshman lawmakers,” says Herstam. “As a gubernatorial chief of staff and Arizona Department of Insurance director in the 1990s, I relied on Morrison Institute studies and policy analysis for guidance. And as president and a member of the Arizona Board of Regents during this decade, the Morrison Institute was utilized for specific research assignments and reviews of higher education policies.

“Morrison Institute is now in its third decade as Arizona’s leading public policy entity because of quality analysis and its objectivity.”

When Morrison Institute began, ASU was far less networked in the region and throughout the state even though Arizona was smaller.

As the university expands its connections in the state and around the world, Morrison Institute’s experience and tradition illustrate how quality and commitment can make for a strong, enduring bridge between the university and its many communities.

Nancy Welch,
Morrison Institute