ASU's Ambassador Barbara Barrett & Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Washington Center opened in March. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now (Charlie Leight)

For more than a dozen years, Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, has been on a mission to transform his school into a new kind of university, one that offers access to the broadest demographic possible and takes a new approach to higher education.

A slew of changes and additions on the main Tempe campus have helped carry out that goal. So Crow started looking beyond Arizona’s borders.

“We said, ‘Where is the greatest concentration of people from around the planet?’ ” he says. “And it turns out that’s Washington, D.C. Everybody’s in Washington, D.C.”

Now Arizona State University has established a major D.C. presence as well, with the March opening of its Ambassador Barbara Barrett & Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Washington Center (named after two prominent Arizona women). “We said to ourselves that we needed to build a transactional idea center in Washington, D.C., and begin the process of engaging in new ideas, new solutions, new ways to solve problems, new ways to teach and new ways to learn,” says Crow.

The new center provides access for ASU students, faculty and staff to the broad range of entities based in the nation’s capital, including the federal government, organizations like the World Bank, major foundations and all kinds of nonprofits and associations. It helps the school forge partnerships and contribute to major issues facing the world today.

The Barrett & O’Connor Washington Center expands on a smaller D.C. outpost ASU established a few years ago. The renovated 32,000-square-foot, eight-story building on I Street NW includes classroom space and a news bureau for ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and serves as a home base for ASU programs including the McCain Institute for International Leadership and the Center on the Future of War.

Several types of students are already taking advantage of the center. One is current ASU undergraduate and graduate students who come to D.C. for internships or as part of the degree program they’re enrolled in. ASU’s law school, for example, offers opportunities in D.C. for students interested in getting legal experience with federal agencies or nonprofits.

Lillian Donahue, 21, a senior in the Cronkite School at ASU, is in the middle of a semester in D.C., where she’s reported on topics important to Arizona, like immigration and Native American issues. “My time in D.C. is critical to my career because it’s made me almost fearless,” she says. “What 21-year-old is able to run down her state senator? The experience of being a reporter in the nation’s capital has thickened my skin. I’m running around with the big boys.”

But local folks who aren’t currently ASU students can also benefit from the school’s D.C. facility. ASU is launching a new executive master’s of public administration jointly administered by the McCain Institute that will be a hybrid program of in-person courses in D.C. and Arizona plus online courses. The Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership, a partnership between ASU and Georgetown University, also provides leadership training programs for professionals working in higher education.

The Barrett & O’Connor Washington Center also offers meeting space and resources like its Decision Theater, where federal agencies, nonprofits and other D.C.-area thought leaders are meant to gather to discuss issues like climate change and national security.

“We’re neutral ground,” says Crow. “We are a place where you can come and freely express your ideas. And in Washington we want to be at the table advancing ideas.”

Arizona State University isn’t the only school based outside the D.C. area to have established a presence here. Plenty of colleges and universities, including Cornell University, the University of Texas and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have programs and facilities in the D.C. area to provide their own students with internship and other learning opportunities.

About 1,000 students from the University of California’s nine campuses come to the University of California’s Washington Center every year to intern in the city and take classes. “Our student body is incredibly diverse, so we like to think that we are diversifying the internship force in D.C. and providing some California input into offices around the city,” says Marc Sandalow, associate academic director of the UCDC program.

While the University of California doesn’t offer any educational programming in D.C. for non-UC students, its Washington Center does host lectures and networking events attended by UC alums in the D.C. area. “They use it almost like a California embassy in D.C.,” says Sandalow.

The University of Oklahoma has maintained a location Arlinton’s Crystal City for nearly two decades. It’s part of the university’s extended campus program, which began in the 1960s with a focus on serving military members. That made the D.C. area a natural fit for a location.

Today, OU offers master’s degree programs in international relations, communication and human relations in Crystal City. Students are active-duty and former military along with local working professionals, and classes are taught by OU professors who come to Arlington to teach.

“The curriculum that’s taught is the same as what’s taught on the main campus,” says Lauren Eichinger, assistant director for OU Extended Campus North America. “It’s just condensed for working adults.”

In establishing a presence in the D.C. area, what all of these universities have in common is a desire to provide their students and staff with access to ideas, to the federal government and to organizations tackling complex global issues.

“We don’t believe in the notion that universities are great because you exclude the majority of people who apply,” says ASU’s Crow. “New kinds of universities need to emerge. Our student body is representative of the socioeconomic diversity of our country. So we’re literally going to the seat of democracy with a much more democratic university.”

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