Fiscal straits challenge fast-growing Arizona State U.

Arizona State's Michael M. Crow suggested that the university, the nation's largest, would strive to educate as many students as possible.
Arizona State's Michael M. Crow suggested that the university, the nation's largest, would strive to educate as many students as possible. (Chris Carlson/associated Press)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009

TEMPE, Ariz. -- More than 55,500 students are enrolled here at Arizona State University, many thronging its paths on bicycles, scooters and longboards. By most reckoning, this sun-drenched campus is the nation's largest.

Counting three other ASU campuses in metropolitan Phoenix, the mega-university's enrollment is 68,000, up 24 percent in seven years. University President Michael M. Crow has said the total could eventually approach a staggering 100,000.

But huge growth comes with the huge fiscal challenges of the toughest economy in a generation.

To offset nearly $90 million in state cuts -- about 18 percent -- ASU laid off 500 employees this year and cut nearly 500 vacant positions, gave other employees mandatory furloughs of 10 to 15 days, raised the size of some classes, increased course loads for professors, consolidated dozens of academic programs and imposed a tuition surcharge of $510 to $710 per student.

Such moves raise questions about whether one of the nation's most ambitious university presidents is hitting a wall. But Crow said ASU remains a model for what he calls a "new American university" that can help meet President Obama's goal of returning the nation to world leadership in college completion rates by 2020.

"We're probably too thick-headed to let a temporary economic downturn discourage us, when what we do is more important than ever," Crow said. "We're at the front line of social and economic change for the United States. We're trying to figure out how do you offer the highest-end university to large numbers of students at the lowest possible price."

In-state tuition and fees total $6,844, but officials predict increases in the coming year. They say the school is striving to remain affordable to the widest spectrum of the population.

Sophomore Corbin Smith said academic cutbacks have been noticeable, "but I don't think it hit us as hard as it could have." Tuition, he said, is "very reasonable."

Michael McBeath, a psychology professor, said that the budget cuts were a shock but that he viewed the furlough as a way to help the university and the nation. He said faculty members worry about the possibility of more cuts. "We're still sort of claiming we want to do it all," he said, "and at the same time we're not increasing the resources."

ASU is not alone. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities reported this monththat 85 percent of its members have been hit with state funding cuts. For nearly half, the cuts were 10 percent or more. Federal stimulus money has filled some gaps but not all. And the stopgap funding will run out soon. Last week, University of California regents voted to raise student fees 32 percent in response to state funding cuts.

"There is a disconnect between the high aspirations of the [Obama] administration and the reality of what's going on in our states," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "We've got to overcome that. We can't just sit back, wring our hands and close the doors to students."

ASU belongs to a class of four-year public research universities with campuses akin to mid-size cities. Reports show the next largest campus after ASU in Tempe is Ohio State in Columbus, with 55,000 graduate and undergraduate students. Others in the 50,000-plus range include the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities and the University of Texas at Austin.

The University of Maryland in College Park, the largest in the Washington area, has 37,000 students.

In his eighth year at ASU, Crow is known as an innovator, although skeptics say he overreaches. He has jettisoned layers of management to unify ASU's four campuses, promoted research on environmental sustainability and merged academic fields to create interdisciplinary teams. In 2006, geology and astronomy were combined to form the School of Earth and Space Exploration. This year, the same thinking led to creation of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

ASU also opened a nine-acre campus this year within the Tempe campus. Barrett Honors College aims to be a liberal arts enclave for 2,700 students. Mark Jacobs, dean of the college, said it stands out among 65 or so similar colleges at public universities. He pointed out some of its finer touches: the dining hall with serpentine glass windows and a baby grand piano, the courtyards lined with bougainvillea and palo verde trees, the residential and academic halls built with textured patterns of polished and rough cinderblock.

Best of all in these lean times, Jacobs said, building the $130 million complex barely weighed on the university's bottom line. A developer fronted most construction costs in exchange for a stream of student housing rental income.

"Someone pays all the money. You don't have to raise a cent yourself. And you get to design an entire college campus," Jacobs said. "Imagine!"

© 2009 The Washington Post Company