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ASU President Michael Crow on Campus Protests, AI and the Future of College Sports




As protests erupted across college campuses this spring amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, Arizona State University (ASU) president Michael Crow—who runs a large state institution with nearly 80,000 students enrolled on campus and more than 65,000 online—was not immune from the heat. In late April, pro-Palestian protesters erected an encampment on the school’s Tempe, Ariz. campus; police took it down and arrested more than 70 people, 20 of them Arizona State students. “We protected free speech,” says Crow. “We did not permit hate speech or genocidal speech. We have to continue operating a university. We graduated 20,000 people, our largest spring graduation effort. We had over 250,000 visitors. We held over 30 convocation events. They all went on and people were able to demonstrate. But nothing was interrupted.”

Read More: What America’s Student Photojournalists Saw at the Campus Protests

Crow took over Arizona State back in 2002, when it was largely known as one of the premier party schools in the country. Crow set out to form a “New American University”—”highly egalitarian, highly innovative, highly adaptive, highly personalized,” he says—and for nine straight years, U.S. News and World Report has named Arizona State the most innovative university in America. Crow talked to TIME on May 16 about lessons learned during this highly-charged moment on college campuses, his potentially pioneering collaboration with OpenAI, and the future of the multi-billion-dollar college sports business. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Since Oct. 7, protests and conflicts over free speech have unspooled on college campuses and beyond. It seems that the job of university president has become one of the more stressful occupations in America. What’s your stress level right now?  

The job has significant amounts of stress to begin with. It's just not very visible. There are many, many constituents, groups, social issues, political issues, cultural issues—it's just a normal everyday thing. Then comes October 7. It's not very stressful to say that an organization intent on annihilating another group because of their religion is not exactly an expression of free speech. The stress levels have gone up because we have to take leadership positions, we have to make decisions in a very difficult and challenging moment, call hate speech “hate speech” and at the same time protect the right to free speech.

What is the biggest challenge running a university in May of 2024? 

I think the toughest job is preparing our college graduates for the complexities that lie ahead. How do we continue to accelerate the kind of unbelievable positive progress that we've had over the last few hundred years and, in particular, the last couple hundred years in the United States? And how do we find a way to best prepare people to deal with high-speed cultural change, high-speed technological change, unbelievable communication changes with social media and AI systems and so forth. I'm not blowing smoke. This is an unbelievably challenging moment. The stress is, how do we do that and not be diverted from our target, not get sucked into political whirlpools that are bent on some kind of negative outcome? And so the biggest stress is to keep playing to the future, in the middle of large amounts of forces that are out there that are not interested in the continued evolution into the future.

The pro-Palestianian protests and occupation of a building at Columbia University generated worldwide attention. What grade would you give Columbia's President, Minouche Shafik, on her handling of the crisis? 

I'm not going to give grades to other university presidents. What I can say is it's important that universities be bastions for free speech, but in being a bastion for free speech, that we not be a bastion for anarchy. Free speech is a protected thing. It just doesn't include hate speech or speech that's genocidal. Genocidal speech is hate speech. Genocidal speech might be free speech [when] yelling from the street. But not inside the university community. 

At Arizona State, 72 arrests were made on April 26 and 27, during a pro-Palenstinian protest on campus. Why were those arrests made?

We're very tolerant of the expression of free speech. There was a pro-Palestinian rally that had begun at about 8:30 in the morning of the first day. It was in an inappropriate place. That is, they hadn't registered for the location. We decided to let the demonstration continue. They began setting up tents. We asked them not to. They began to attract lots of people, mostly not students, and then built an encampment and the beginnings of a fortification. We said, “listen, you're free to express your ideas here, but you're not free to have an encampment. So you need to know that by 11pm, you need to be gone. And you can come back the next morning at 5am, and the encampment needs to be gone.” At 11pm, most people were gone, but not everyone. And all of the encampment was still there. So we asked the police to come in and help us to take it down. Which we did, with no injuries and no use of weapons. 

And the next day there were two additional demonstrations on campus and they were both peaceful and appropriate. The university exists to serve the [ASU] community and within that there are some rules of engagement. Blocking free speech is not one of them. You can still express your free speech but you can't have any encampment, we don't allow tents to be built on campus. There wasn't going to be an encampment overnight, period.

Were the 20 students who were arrested on those days allowed to walk in graduation or take finals? 

The answer was no. They can complete [their degrees]. They just have to meet with our student affairs staff and go through a process. And many of them are in that process right now. 

[According to an ASU spokesperson, just two of the students arrested were set to graduate on May 6.]

What did you learn from the experience? 

You can maintain these values all at the same time. You have to be able to maintain safety. We did that. You have to be able to maintain the rights of the students to advance with their programs. We did that. You have to maintain free speech so that they can freely express their views about the war, which they did, which is also fine. And we also said that genocidal speech isn't going to be allowed and we didn't see any of that. We had people showing up who were not pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. They were pro-trouble. So we made sure that the pro-trouble people couldn't do what they were there to do.

The chief of police at Arizona State was placed on paid leave because of complaints about his conduct during the protests. Why was he put on leave, and what's the status of any investigation? 

If people accuse a police officer of conduct that's not appropriate we have to look into it. So we hired the right investigators and they're looking into what these charges are. I don't know the details of the charges. But that's normal procedure.

You’ve said that postdoctoral research scholar, Jonathan Yudelman, “will never” teach at Arizona State again after he confronted a Muslim woman wearing a hijab during a pro-Israel demonstration. The video went viral: Yudelman was heard telling the woman “you disrespect my sense of humanity, bitch.” Why did you cut ties with Yudelman?

Well, you can't be one of our employees and go up to another person for a religious or ethnic reason and begin threatening them. We can arrest you, or you're just gone. So he's gone. 

[Yudelman did not return a request for comment made through the University of Austin, where he holds another appointment.] 

You're the first higher education institution to collaborate with OpenAI. What benefits from this partnership are accruing to students and faculty and everybody else at Arizona State?

Don't think of AI as the Terminator bots that are going to come in and kill everyone. Think of it as this unbelievably intelligent tutor. We've spent the last three years, for example, building a new way to teach biology. Let's say you're at ASU now. You decided to take Biology 100. So in Biology 100, which is Science for non-Science majors, you take your labs in a virtual reality environment. You're in this thing where you become an avatar. You’re learning biology not by listening to lectures, you learn biology by engaging in this virtual reality. We're building an AI tool with OpenAI in which you're flying your little robot and now you're next to a messenger ribonucleic acid, which is what the COVID vaccine was made of. And so you're sitting there and you're looking at this and you're flying around it, and you're studying it and you ask your AI, why are the spikes so long? What are the chemicals on the end of the spikes? And how do they attach? It's going to answer all those questions for you. What's the speed with which it flows through the bloodstream? All that kind of stuff. You're going to probably become a master biologist, just by asking this machine. 

We see it as the most important tool probably since the book, that can enhance the learning outcomes. Right now we're building 1,000 AI tools. We're not viewing it as an existential threat to our species quite yet. We sort of view it as like a computer that can answer our questions. 

What is the biggest challenge in managing the emergence of AI, whether it’s monitoring academic integrity or anything else?

Cheaters are going to cheat. I suspect there were cheaters back when there were little tablets made of stone. We've had a few of our faculty members give their final exams to an AI system. It answered them all perfectly, which means there's something wrong with the final exam. And so upping our Game is the biggest challenge. How do we enhance and accelerate learning? We're trying to work with training our faculty and our students. If they are asking things like, ‘please write an essay on this’ and some AI system can write the essay, well, then what's being asked isn't complex enough. 

What do you make of the argument that, after Oct. 7 and the campus uprisings, companies may be less likely to hire students from elite universities. 

The debate is more about the broader cultural context of these institutions. Those institutions that become culturally adrift from some core American values, which not very many have, but if they do, they're going to find themselves with a less beneficial tax policy, they're going to find themselves with less connection to the American government and so forth. But I don't see this as existential, I see this as instructional.

What should students expect to get out of a college degree?

So the purpose of colleges and universities is to produce people capable of learning anything in accelerated ways. That's really what we're doing. That turns out to be a really important skill set. It turns out to be a thing that produces very adaptable people. And so I see it as increasingly important. We have an Honors College inside ASU called Barrett. And then we have 80,000 other students also. So what we're doing with all of the people, both on campus and online, we're working to create highly adaptable master learners, who in our case are now majoring in two, three, four, and even five subjects, learning across broad fields. 

For nine straight years, U.S. News & World Report has named Arizona State the most innovative university in the United States. If there's been one innovation that you think has had the biggest impact over your tenure, what would it be?

A faculty highly willing to design new intellectual enterprises and use Technology to enhance learning outcomes. Our faculty has built hundreds of new degrees, 85 new academic departments in schools. We are different in that we focus on measuring our success based on our students’ outcomes and our community outcomes, not just on the outcome of the faculty itself. 

When you took over at Arizona State in 2002, the school had a bit of a reputation as a party school.

We were the world’s most famous party school!

Arizona State still shows up in some party school rankings, though lower down the list than in the past. Is Arizona State still a place that a student can go to have a good time and unwind a little?

A lot of Ivy League folks ask us these questions from time to time. There must be no drinking at Princeton or at Dartmouth. I'm sure of that. 

Arizona State is a place where you can choose between literally 450 undergraduate majors. You can live in apartment buildings that have fabulous recreational facilities, pools and workout places and so forth and so on. You can do all of that. You can make your own life choices. The party school thing probably wasn't the best metric back then. It’s a very serious institution. You can have fun and do things and also have a great time when you're there. But that's no longer a moniker that describes the institution. 

Turning to athletics for a bit, you recently talked aboutdoing away with a legacy in the design [of the athletic department] that we think is counterproductive to our success." What do you mean by that? 

The most important thing that we're doing is restructuring the entire design of our athletic program, so that it will operate in the transformative ways that we've operated the rest of the university, rather than just being what's called an auxiliary unit. We've restructured the finances, the capitalization, restructured the relationship with the students. We’re preparing ourselves for all things that lie ahead. We got through our NCAA investigation. We have the number one recruiting class [in 2025] in Big 12 Football. We have Bobby Hurley's best recruiting class for his men's basketball team. Four coaches were Pac-12 coaches of the year and we won the national championship in swimming. A lot of positive things are happening. 

I want to give you a chance to respond to criticism of how you and the school handled the football recruiting scandal. In February 2022, you stood by ex-coach Herman Edwards when word came down that the NCAA was investigating recruiting violations during the COVID-19 no-visit period. You implied that he wasn’t responsible for violations. Edwards was let go in September of 2022 with a $4.4 million severance payment, and in April of this year, the NCAA found that Edwards “extensively participated in impermissible recruiting.” 

The day we heard about the cheating Scandal, we launched our investigation. The next day, we were told by the NCAA that they had to run the investigation. They ran the investigation. And when we finally decided that we needed to separate from Herman, the NCAA hadn't interviewed him. Let's make note of that. On separation, he got $4 million out of $8 million. He gave up $4 million. So his penalty on separation was $4 million.

So you’re saying that when you stood by him in February of 2022, you didn't know that he had a role in the recruiting violations?

Correct. The NCAA is highly prescriptive on what to say and when we're allowed to say it and so forth. What we're happy with is, we're past it. We worked through it.

Why did Arizona State move from the Pac-12 Conference to the Big 12?

I believed in the regional conferences, as opposed to big national conferences. But at the end of the day, when Oregon and Washington came [into the Big 10] after the offer that was made by Apple [to keep schools in the Pac-12]— we're talking about events that occurred in less than 24 hours—the conference didn't exist anymore at that point. And so, so the next day, several of us then joined the Big 12. And off we go into the unknown.

The four what are called the corner schools—Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Arizona State— we get to stay together and move over there. Texas is not that far away. We’re in strong recruiting areas, with strong competitive teams, and strong athletic traditions. So we're excited. I was a javelin thrower at Iowa State, in the old Big 8 conference. So I've been to all these little towns throwing the javelin. The wind in Oklahoma and Kansas is tough to get it to fly in the right way. But, nonetheless, we're excited about the competition. I think we're going to do very well. 

It’s no secret that with TV rights deals and conference realignment and name, image, likeness (NIL) money is playing a larger and larger role in college athletics. Is the relationship between sports and academics in colleges where you want it to be? 

It’s not. It is seriously messed up. And I think that we need to take a step back as a country and ask ourselves if we want to professionalize all these college sports. Because they're supposed to be a way for young people to get their degrees and move forward with their lives and train for the Olympics and so forth. I'm a fan of taking a step back and looking at all this. There are so many trains in movement right now. There are lawsuits, settlements, NIL activity, pay-the-athletes. I think we can do a better job once we decide what we want college sports to be.

Are you in favor of colleges paying their athletes?

I'm not in favor of paying athletes. I'm for very significant scholarships with significant stipends to help them to be successful in the totality of their lives. But the second we start paying them, once they're an employee, they're no longer a student-athlete. They're now an employee-athlete. That’s different.