More than 200 people at a Peoria conference got a jolt of reality along with their caffeine from Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who said a collective "arrogant ignorance" holds the nation back.
He cited an education system that's not innovative enough, a lack of awareness or acknowledgment of global competition and lack of long-term vision.
Crow, the morning keynote speaker Thursday at the city's second annual Positive Action through Civic Engagement conference didn't mince words in his hourlong address, taking on what he called the "800-pound elephant sitting in the room."
The state of the economy.
Crow said the country needs to work toward a common goal of economic success and global competitiveness, which would help achieve other goals of social, cultural and community development.
He outlined "realistic assessments" of the United States, often forcefully, thumping the lectern on stage at the Arizona Broadway Theatre.
The ASU president said the country is resting on its laurels, which is not enough to come out of the economic morass.
"We don't understand the rise and the development of the rest of the world as competitors; we feel it but we don't understand it," he said. "We are going to have to look ourselves in the mirror, pull ourselves together as a community and literally re-think many, many things."
Crow said looking to the federal government for all the answers is not the solution. He urged the audience, comprising business, education and community leaders, to understand that the solutions to problems come from communities.
"Communities and states are the laboratories of democracy," he said. "We are the means by which solutions will be derived, new pathways will be engineered."
Crow also criticized the K-12 and higher-education systems for being "insufficiently innovative," and stifled by the "model of the past."
He said the focus should be on how K-12 schools are doing, "not compared with the school down the street or the school up in Flagstaff," but with schools internationally.
"We're not where we should be," Crow said.
He took on his peers, other research university presidents, for thinking narrowly only of the elite students and educators. They must be more inclusive to better educate the country.
"The level of arrogance among these individuals and these institutions is beyond belief," Crow said.
He spoke of the need to think big, not in the narrow prism of growth within a city or company but regionally, to compete not with Tempe or Tucson but with Singapore or Shanghai.
For that, he singled out the need to think about growth in the context of the larger Sun Corridor in Arizona, one of 10 megapolitans identified as hubs for growth because of their collective infrastructure and resources. The corridor stretching from Prescott to Tucson, across Yavapai, Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties, has a collective economy the size of Finland, Malaysia or the United Arab Emirates, he said.
To compete globally, leaders would have to take the long-term view and make decisions regionally.
Crow said it doesn't help to just focus on dealing with people who no longer have jobs and how to keep them going in the short-term with unemployment benefits. Leaders must focus on how the unemployed are being prepared for the jobs that need filled going forward.
"By being economically competitive, we can build from that the societies we want," Crow said.
The speech impressed several audience members.
AARP Arizona volunteer Virginia Correa Creager told Crow she would work to spread the word. "It's incumbent on us not to just listen to you today, not to just take notes from you today but it's incumbent upon us to reach out into the community and spread the message that you gave us today," she said.
The message of working collectively for the larger cause of economic prosperity hit home for Sandy Mendez Benson of Washington Elementary School District. She said that's something she works on at the local level, "trying to pool resources and ideas" between schools and the local businesses and community residents.
December 1, 2011
The following appeared in the November 19th edition of the Arizona Republic. I completely agree with Dr. Michael Crow's assessment of the situation in the United States. Dr. Crow mentioned the idea of Americans resting on their laurels; in my opinion, not only is this true, but the problem is exacerbated by many Americans' believing in "American exceptionalism." I can tell you that not only do other people around the world not believe in the idea of how "exceptional" the United States is, but that they are working as hard as possible to be better than Americans in all sorts of fields: education, commerce, industry, and so forth. Too many Americans would rather be fat, stupid and lazy, then complain about why the rest of the world is passing them by and taking "their" jobs. Dr. Crow's message should be a wake-up call to Americans that they need to rethink how American society should operate before the so-called "American exceptionalism" turns permanently into "American mediocrity." The United States is already on its way there.