Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Michael Crow, ASU, Ants and Biosphere 2

Joe Nocera has written a loving tribute to ASU's President Michael Crow in this NY Times piece.   To his credit, Dr. Crow is thinking hard about how to make his school stand out from other public universities and to achieve the double bottom line goal of increasing access to higher education for all people.  Such "out of the box" thinking is exactly what competition fosters.    More ambitious universities should be thinking about strategies to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Dr. Crow and I were once colleagues at Columbia University.  What I remember about him are the ants taking over his Biosphere 2.  Here is what the NY Times reported in 2003 about Biosphere 2.

"It is difficult to say what kind of scientific promise the giant structure, an eight-story steel and glass terrarium, might hold. From the day in 1991 that eight men and women and 4,000 plant and animal species were sealed with great fanfare into it as part of an experiment to simulate the earth's ecology, Biosphere 2 generated fascination and skepticism. Biosphere 1 is the earth.

Critics called Biosphere 2 a ''scientific crapshoot.'' When the human guinea pigs left the structure after two years, crops had failed, noxious gases had built up, the water had turned acidic and the site was overrun by ''crazy ants'' and morning glories.

But Columbia officials decided that with some modifications it might hold some promise, and its decision in 1995 to take on Biosphere 2's management seemed to confer academic legitimacy to the project.

As recently as 1999, the collaboration seemed to be going well, as Columbia announced that it would invest $20 million over five years and manage it until 2010. And in 2001, the university said it would start a science and public policy graduate program at the center.

But Biosphere 2's chief champion, Columbia's executive vice provost, Michael Crow, left for Arizona State University, and a new president, Lee C. Bollinger, took the helm of the university. After two panels reviewing the site offered negative evaluations, Columbia expressed questions about further investment.

In March, Decisions Investments sued Columbia, saying its decision to end education programs there and its failure to hire faculty and build a new laboratory had diminished the property's value and were a breach of contract."