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University Roundtable: The State of Higher Education in Arizona

Arizona proudly boasts of having some of the best universities and educational institutions in the country, and in the world. Arizona is home to three world-class universities— Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Arizona.

Moderated by Phoenix Business RadioX President Karen Nowicki and Arizona Technology Council CEO Steve Zylstra, a distinguished panel of university presidents—Dr. Rita Cheng of Northern Arizona University, Dr. Michael Crow of Arizona State University and Dr. Robert Robbins of The University of Arizona— discussed how COVID-19 has shifted higher education, the programs that are creating a highly skilled workforce, how each university is working to bring about innovation-based economic development to the state, the relationship between the tech community and the university system, as well as what challenges and opportunities are on the horizon.

A high-focus area for all three universities focused on what the new paradigm will look like to keep students and faculty safe in the fall.

“The pandemic taught us how to harness the technology and intellect of staff to quickly adjust to the various things that had to happen to make the environment safe for students and faculty,” said Dr. Rita Cheng. “That same creativity and spirit has taught us that we can do things differently to succeed and provide classroom instruction supported by technology.”

“W e’re getting ready for anything,” said Dr. Michael Crow. “We’re using the moment to create a new modality and link it to scale…it was a positive step for the university.”

Dr. Robert Robbins added, “We’re trying to provide flexibility for everyone…both faculty and students…to provide maximum protection. But there are some jobs and classes that simply can’t be done remotely, such as organic chemistry or the art studio or the clinical experience. All of us are going to have to offer on-campus and in-person activities. We’re all in a deep set of circumstances. We can never de-risk this to zero, but we’re working hard to minimize it as much as we can.”

The panel of presidents also discussed the importance of fostering local start-ups, the exciting new innovations coming out of each university, and how NAU, ASU and UArizona are working to bring about innovation-based economic development to the state to realize Arizona as the Silicon Desert.

“NAU is proud of its partnership with the Air Force to develop non-traditonal cyber warfare,” Cheng said. “We’re using data sources and informatics to being solutions to sustainability and security. NAU’s graduates are supplying the state’s tech workforce.”

“ASU is approaching 200 spin-out companies,” said Crow. “But if we really want to play ball, we need venture capital and better ideas. We need to start to seeing ourselves as a national player…we’re still seeing ourselves as small ball players.”

“You don’t need to be in California to launch a successful startup,” Robbins said. “You can be successful right here in Arizona. “UArizona has already spun out 16 startups.”

Robbins added, “We have a pioneering entrepreneurial spirit here in Arizona. I’m very bullish on the future of Arizona and the future of the three universities.”


University of Arizona
Northern Arizona University
Arizona State University
President + CEO
Arizona Technology Council


About AZ TechCast
AZ TechCast is dedicated to covering innovation and technology in Arizona and beyond. Through the art of connected conversation, AZ TechCast’s guests will share their expertise, success stories, news and analysis about the region’s leading startups, companies and emerging technologies, as well as the latest industry trends and critical issues propelling the state’s growing technology ecosystem.

About Phoenix Business RadioX
Karen Nowicki is the owner and president of Phoenix Business RadioX. Amplifying the voice of business, Phoenix Business RadioX helps local businesses and professional associations get the word out about the important work they’re doing to serve their market, profession and community. A successful author, speaker and the creator of Deep Impact Leadership™ and SoulMarks Coaching™, Nowicki is a two-time recipient of the prestigious national Choice Award® for her book and personal development retreat. In addition, Nowicki has been an expert guest on regional TV and radio shows, including Fox Phoenix Morning Show, Sonoran Living, Good Morning Arizona, The Chat Room and Mid-Day Arizona. Recognized for her leadership and business acumen, she has been a regular contributor to many print and online magazines – publishing articles and blogs for business and education.


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