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What is the role of universities in global development?

Michael Crow's picture

In my career as an educator, social scientist and university president, I have worked primarily as an organizational designer and architect. And in doing so, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to study how universities and other organizations are structured, how decisions related to their design can shape their visions and accomplishments, and how organizations can work together as partners to achieve more than they could alone.
It is my belief that, as the pace and complexity of our global society increases exponentially, there is an urgent need to realign the design and infrastructure of education with the needs of the people our educational systems are intended to serve. While universities have long been vital and powerful drivers of global innovation and economic development, they must now be willing to break free from outmoded paradigms if they hope to continue achieving meaningful progress.  

With this motivation in mind, Arizona State University (ASU) has spent more than a decade evolving a new model for 21st century higher education. Known as the New American University, it is dedicated to the simultaneous achievement of excellence and access, an endeavor long thought impossible by academic leaders. Based upon that design and my experience over the past eleven years, I offer the following observations and examples as a means of facilitating discussion about the role of universities in our global development community as well as the imperative to foster innovation in all of our global institutions:
1.  Universities are unique kinds of global institutions. Universities are institutions intended to be durable and enduring. When wisely designed, governed and financed, they are unique entities in our American democracy and in our global society. Universities are neutral conveners, assemblers of talent, and unmatched idea factories where the passion, creativity, and idealism of great minds, young and old alike, can be applied to problem-solving and advancing our societal and economic well-being.  
2.  Universities must adapt and innovate. Contemporary universities have a responsibility to transcend traditional disciplinary limitations in pursuit of intellectual fusion, and develop a culture of academic enterprise and knowledge entrepreneurship. They must also be prepared to begin delivering higher education at scale – in a manner that bestows status upon universities based upon the outcomes they achieve and their breadth of impact rather than the exclusivity and quality of their incoming freshman class.
3.  Universities must embrace their cultural, socioeconomic and physical setting. It is imperative that universities be socially embedded, thereby fostering development through direct engagement. Universities must work creatively and be willing to take risks to become even greater forces of societal transformation.
4.   Universities must focus on the individual. Universities need to foster student success by becoming student-centric – rather than faculty-centric. Successful universities will be those capable of being nimble, anticipatory, imaginative and reactive. They must provide unique environments that prepare students to be “master thinkers” able to grasp a wide array of skills and comprise the most adaptable workforce the world has ever known.  
5.  Universities must become effective partners for global development. Only through the proliferation of networks between like-minded alliances can transformation occur at the scale that is immediately needed in order to advance our present global knowledge economy. Our communities must open their eyes to this imminent future and transform their thinking to see universities, not as self-indulgent “people factories,”  but as valuable idea generators with vast influence and the potential to manifest technologies and concepts that can change lives the world over.
Change is not easy. Modification and growth in large, complex institutions that are part of an increasingly global system of commerce, trade and interchange can be particularly challenging. But innovation and adaptation are needed now more than ever before in our international higher education infrastructure and in our global development institutions. We must work together to build what we need, not simply replicate what has existed before, and I welcome your ideas and feedback on the role of universities in advancing global development.


Submitted by David Wright on

In 2007 you wrote, " systems that foster dissent and freedom of choice provide a fertile culture for innovation."-- None Dare Call It Hubris: The Limits of Knowledge, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2007.

1) Please explain the roles of dissent and freedom of choice in innovation, how universities foster dissent and freedom of choice within the academy and how universities may influence other organizations to do the same.

2) In an innovative culture that fosters dissent, how is dissent best expressed, i.e. so it may be heard, so it may be addressed in a meaningful way, as well as set a positive example for others who wish to speak out in conscience?

All change involves some amount of risk. Organizations can sometimes be so concerned with avoiding risk that they never attempt anything novel, even when a need has been identified. One must be strategic, fully-informed, and prepared to try something else if successful innovation proves elusive. You may find this article to be of interest:

Submitted by David Wright on

Good article, thank you. Given the need to encourage tolerance for risk and disrupting the status quo in order to effect positive change, I suggest dissent is an important source of information about areas in need of improvement and new directions for development, whether it be within one institution or society as a whole. However, for a variety of reasons through history, dissent has been ignored, dismissed, resisted or repressed, almost never embraced as a diagnostic tool. It would seem then that new ways to express dissent and new ways to hear it are needed so the value of dissent can be brought to bear on the challenges we face. What measures can be taken now to encourage innovation around dissent?

Submitted by David Wright on

Social networking has become a part of daily life for many people, and most view it favorably. In the context of university partners in global engagement, do you anticipate any potential problems arising from social networking?

Submitted by Curtis on


Excellent article! As an educator and education researcher in higher education, you touche don something near to my heart. Universities cannot be isolated islands existing in their own little world. They need to take their place in the world around them, which means change. Change is traditionally very difficult for most in the hallowed ivory towers of academia. I have been down this road too many times, but I firmly believe that universities need to change in an ever changing world. Thank you!

Thank you for your interest and feedback. At ASU, we have made social embeddedness a priority and the more we strengthen these efforts, the more unique opportunities and experiences become available to our students ( We continue to advance this work on all fronts and to promote the importance of university responsiveness and engagement as a means of creating positive change.

Submitted by Dr Satya P.Bindra on

Experience shows that educational systems designed and developed in relatively stable environment of industrialized world when transferred to rapidly changing environment in developing countries though useful often fail to deliver the results. Change and development need to be by right people on the right places based on careful study of trends, role, relevance, challenges and opportunities. How do you achieve proliferation of networks between like minded alliances in an environment with no freedom of expression, corruption, nepotism and favoritism?.

Submitted by David Wright on

You have identified perhaps the most challenging obstacles to innovation, yet in my view, the only way the system can evolve is through innovation, to find alternative pathways around those stresses, to create something new which renders the old ways obsolete. This blog is an example of how such alliances can begin. It has been said, "good innovation solves old problems, but great innovation creates new problems to solve." Eventually those in control will have to be engaged, and if I were to speculate, an alliance that brings to bear new problems, without exposing those in the alliance to retaliation (perhaps because the alliance is perceived as external rather than internal to the repressed groups), will have the best chances of success. I wish I had a better answer.

a few thoughts from an undergraduate development researcher:

-outcomes over exclusivity: YES!

-focusing on intentions of service: YES!

-our grand challenge: translating these spot-on pronouncements into practices across many campuses (one great example of this in action is the AidData research consortium, which includes UT Austin, BYU, William & Mary, and various dev institutions -AND- another growing example is USAID's HESN initiative).

-You say it yourself President Crow, "Change is not easy..." Now, is that something the old guard says to make themselves feel better about their old guard ways or is it something they say to try and break out of those ways? i fear it's more often the former, meant to console me when brilliant plans like yours take so long to get off the ground.

Respectfully yours,


Thanks for your comment. The concern is why it was important for ASU to demonstrate, not only that a simultaneous commitment to excellence and access is achievable, but also that meaningful, tangible progress can be made at a significantly faster clock speed than is the norm at which higher education operates. Both will and creativity are vital.

Submitted by David Wright on

Dr. Crow, you talked about the goal of having each student come into the university with an equal chance of success. In the immediate context of increased access and higher quality, it seems creating an equal chance for success at the university will require the university to provide to each student, on an individualized basis, what K-12 and community colleges have failed to provide to each student, on an individualized basis. In the long term, it seems it will also be necessary for K-12 and the community colleges to evolve in ways similar to those you have described, such that, at least for college-bound students, they complement the design of the new university. In the broader social context, there are other factors to address, such as economic disparity, cultural norms, discriminatory biases, etc. Given the comprehensive changes needed to promote equal chance of success, not to mention the costs, should access to education be a right, or are there other more effective ways to establish this goal as a systemic priority for society?

Student preparation is critical. ASU chooses to work toward broad change by creating the opportunities, tools and pathways that are needed to give students the foundation they need to succeed in college.

Submitted by Zakariya on

thank you for sharing us with a wonderful Idea about the roles of university in global development,I would like to suggest that universities must focus on supporting values, (empathy, honesty, accountability, transparency, responsibility, living with other in harmony and etc, I think with those values the graduates of those universities would sustain the peace and harmony among the nations in global development because if our universities don't focus on the issues probably the outcome would be lacking of something which is very important, and then we need to work as educators in building values that would be the road-map for achieving global goals and targets that every one in the world looking for. However, my second suggestion is universities must focus on how we let our graduates understanding the different cultures around the world because from educational point of views there should a room for individual to understand the culture of others, this point really I do believe would play a big roles in making the global development hope something true in our life, and every one enjoys his/her life as a results of global prosperity and development.

Submitted by Katherine Noall on

Brilliant article. This provides a clear model for universities wishing to future-proof themselves. It is time for new direction, where outcomes matter and learning and research transcend the traditional university silos. The universities which get this right first are going to be very exciting places to study, research and work.

Submitted by Alex Lara on

Hello, interesting article, but let's take one step back. I would like to know how universities "structures" can be adjusted so more capable individuals have access to them? It appears that some or most universities are solely based (or obsessed) to let prospective students in, by measuring on how well they did on the GRE, GMAT, etc. (if in US), or by any other national test standard if somewhere else in the world. There is just a non-existent comprehensive and true cognitive assessment to properly select a diverse group of individuals who can make even richer the academic environment. On the other hand, speaking of university accessibility, Ivy League institutions are pretty much alike in the way they select their students; it is also interesting to find that people who have gone to these universities "think" very much alike too.

Submitted by Woon Chin on

Great article, thank you! It is a very clear model of how universities can shape themselves. Most importantly, universities of the 21st century must be able to see themselves as a talent factory where ideas are formed to have vast influence and potential to change and improve lives.

Keeping and maintaining the traditions of universities through the Newman model is great. And it can be even better if universities today are able to continue to stay really in tuned with what's going on in the world, not just for education but also societal and global changes. Universities, after all, are at the heart of globalisation, whether we like it or not.

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