Arizona State University President Michael Crow insists that thinking of Arizona in terms of urban-versus-rural is wrong. He also thinks ASU will be the catalyst for connecting the entire state via access to education.
Crow said as much in a speech to a mostly urban audience of policymakers, academics and local media at the State of Our State 2019 conference Nov. 25, hosted by ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
The theme was “Rural Arizona Now.” Speakers introduced newly published research by the university, and two panels discussed rural issues facing the state.
Crow used his speech to point out what he calls a misunderstanding in dividing the state between rural and urban communities. According to Crow, we should only be thinking in terms of “Arizona, Arizona, Arizona.”
Arizona Mirror spoke with Crow the day after the conference to clarify what he meant when he said during his speech that the urban-rural divide is an invalid way of viewing the dynamics of the state.
“This notion of rural versus urban, or ‘nearby,’ is much less meaningful than it was. A person chooses to live in Chino Valley, or a person chooses to live in Bagdad, Arizona — well, that person, with the right technology hookup, is completely connected to massive learning assets that we never had available before that we have available now,” Crow told the Mirror.
And regarding people who didn’t “choose” to live anywhere and instead are forced by circumstance to live in areas without internet access or infrastructure: “Some people don’t want internet access, so that’s a personal choice,” Crow said.
“I think we should have ubiquitous internet access for everybody that wants it, and that would then lead to massive economic adaptability and educational access,” he added.
About 400,000 households in Arizona do not have internet access, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the rural Navajo and Apache Counties in eastern Arizona, less than 65% of households had subscriptions to any broadband service as of 2017, according to the Census Bureau.
Large portions of both counties are tribal land and lack basic infrastructure, including parts of the Navajo, Hopie and White Mountain Apache tribes. In Navajo and Apache Counties, 26% and 33% of households, respectively, are below poverty-level income. The nationwide poverty rate the same year, in 2017, was 12.3%.
Almost 40% of residents on the Navajo reservation have to haul water because there is no municipal water service.
“The question is, ‘Are there inequities?’ Yes, certainly. Can those inequities be addressed? Yes, fairly straightforwardly. It’s a function of just realizing that these gaps (in educational access) are no longer necessary,” Crow said.
Crow pointed to efforts ASU has underway in researching and designing technological solutions to address gaps in educational access, which Crow said are “in some ways easier to address” than other types of urban-rural inequities in the state.
One of the solutions Crow mentioned is a deployable solar-powered wifi device, though that particular solution, he admitted, is less intended for application within the U.S. and is more for use in developing countries where broadband access is nonexistent in many areas.
Asked whether these types of projects are reaching too far from the traditional mission of an American university, Crow said these kinds of projects “are not mutually exclusive” with the institution’s on-campus activity. During his speech at the Morrison Institute conference, Crow said his vision for ASU is to create “an institution that is capable of being everywhere.”
He described projects like the solar-powered wifi, along with ASU’s aggressive approach to expanding its digital learning offerings, as an extension of the university’s traditional role.
“There are ways to be available. That is, think of it this way: a way for us to project all the things that we’re doing without diminishing anything that we’re doing on a campus,” he said.
The panel that followed Crow’s speech focused on building rural economies, and gave the audience a taste of the litany of problems rural Arizona faces that are distinct from those confronting Maricopa County but will nonetheless affect the entire state.
Catastrophic wildfires raging through one of the least healthy ponderosa pine forests in the world, deteriorating infrastructure and lack thereof, generational tensions with public land managers and economic inequality along racial lines were some of the issues brought up by government officials from Coconino and Navajo Counties.
Other local government leaders on the panel pointed to more geographically specific problems for their rural constituents, such as an explosion in the number of short-term rentals in Sedona and the Resolution Copper mine near the Town of Superior.
Crow argued that education isn’t one of the areas where the urban-rural divide matters, as long as ASU continues to find new ways to expand its remote learning systems.
“The world is rapidly becoming hugely urbanized, but a lot of people still are staying in non-urban areas,” Crow said. “But that doesn’t mean they live on a different planet. It’s still one Earth. And now we’ve found ways to project our assets to all these communities, and I think that’s good overall.”