Innovation through Adversity

Volume IV, #8

On January 24, 1975, an American jazz pianist named Keith Jarrett was in Germany preparing to play a concert at the Cologne (Köln) Opera House. It was clear to Jarrett this wasn’t an ordinary concert. First, he wasn’t used to playing opera houses. Second, it was scheduled to begin close to midnight following the conclusion of the earlier opera performance. Third, the concert had been organized by a 17-year-old concert promoter. That was new, and the promoter’s lack of pull accounted for the late start. Fourth, he was exhausted. He had arrived at the Opera House in the late afternoon after a long drive from Zurich. He hadn’t slept well in days due to back pain. Finally, when Jarrett arrived, he saw the piano onstage was not the one he had requested. He had asked for a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano. But his jazz roadies had put a much smaller Bösendorfer baby grand piano onstage. And it was too late to do anything about it.

As Jarrett put on his back brace and began warming up, he realized the smaller piano was in lousy shape. Even after tuning, the piano was tinny and thin in the upper registers and weak in the bass. The pedals were barely functional. Jarrett began fighting with his young promoter, saying he wouldn’t go on. But the promoter prevailed upon him, saying over 1,400 people were expected to attend; she had sold out the Opera house.

Late that night with an eager audience settled in their seats, Jarrett took the stage and immediately demonstrated this would be no ordinary concert. He began by quoting the melody of the Opera House signal bell which announced the beginning of the concert. The audience chuckled. Then he went on to one of the most virtuosic improvisational performances ever recorded. He would vamp on one or two chords for extended periods of time. In the first part, he spent almost 12 minutes vamping between A minor 7 and G major. Instead of unfolding chord sequences like most jazz solos, Jarrett rhythmically, almost hypnotically rolled out hook-like motif after motif, building intensity while maintaining tonal consistency, creating a novel organic feel.

Later, Jarrett said he had no choice but to play in this way. The poor piano required him to concentrate in the middle register. In addition, Jarrett compensated for the poor quality of the bass on the piano by resorting to ostinatos and rolling left-hand rhythmic figures, which amplified the power of the performance.

The Köln Concert became the bestselling solo piano album and bestselling solo jazz album ever. Jarrett attracted legions of fans for whom his music seemed to have a spiritual power. Nearly all attributed their devotion to this one powerful album. In hindsight, Jarrett agrees his performance was achieved only as a result of the adversity he was facing. As the producer of the album, Manfred Eicher later said, “He played it the way he did because it was not a good piano. Because he could not fall in love with the sound of it, he found another way to get the most out of it.”


27 years later, Michael Crow was contemplating a career move. A dynamic Executive Vice Provost at Columbia University, Crow was on the short list of every university with an open presidential position.

But rather than choosing the higher education equivalent of the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand, he moved from New York to Phoenix to assume the Presidency of Arizona State University. Higher education cognoscenti questioned his judgment. Long recognized as one of America’s top party schools, ASU had scant tradition of excellence in higher education. But President Crow recognized that Arizona could be ground zero for building what he conceived of as the New American University.

ASU under President Crow was hamstrung by declining state appropriations. During his tenure, state support for ASU has declined 40% in real terms. At the same time, he recognized the opportunity to do much more with much less and provide a much-needed model for the state-supported institutions that educate 70% of students engaged in American higher education.

In the face of this adversity, Crow convinced the many constituencies at ASU to play ball and the result has been the most thorough transformation of any university in memory. He reorganized the university from the traditional departmental model by establishing more than a dozen interdisciplinary schools to focus on solving major social challenges like renewable energy, urban development and national security. Research spending is up 200% and technology transfer revenue has gone from near-zero to $30M.

While total enrollment has increased by over 50%, degrees granted are up 60%, demonstrating a real improvement in persistence and completion. ASU now graduates more engineers than MIT and Caltech combined. Remarkably, ASU is now #3 in Fulbright scholars – ahead of Yale and Columbia. And ASU now attracts more National Merit Scholars than Berkeley or UCLA. Many surveys now list ASU amongst America’s top universities, a remarkable change in less than a dozen years.

At the same time, the number of minority students is up by nearly two-thirds to 33% in total (accurately reflecting the population of Arizona) and enrollment of low-income Arizona freshmen is up nearly 900%. 40% of ASU students are Pell-eligible, a 182% increase in a decade. 36% are first-generation college students.

Perhaps not coincidentally, ASU also has led the way in terms of public-private partnerships. The University partnered with Knewton, the leader in adaptive learning, to convert freshman math courses to an adaptive learning platform. This has contributed to a freshman retention rate increase of more than 10%. Crow also developed a unique structure for the University’s new online arm, ASU Online. Partnering with Pearson for all non-academic functions (technology platform, enrollment services, student support services) has allowed ASU to focus its efforts on making online core to the institution. As such, new programs aren’t mandated from the center but rather proposed by departments. Departments are responsible for identifying instructors for their online programs and share in the revenue these programs generate. So rather than focusing online efforts in one part of the university, online is infusing the university, helping all of it grow.

Finally, Crow co-founded the ASU Education Innovation Summit. Only five years old, the Summit has become the premier event for innovation in education. (It’s coming up the week after next if you’re interested in attending.)


While most of us wouldn’t intentionally choose to play a tinny piano, a tinny piano can be the mother of innovation. One of Crow’s pet peeves is isomorphism, which I have written about previously. Isomorphism refers to the tendency amongst our colleges and universities to model themselves after the rankings leaders.

Take a look at college catalogues from ten institutions chosen at random. What differences do you see? All claim to offer the same basic programs and experience with little differentiation besides an “international focus,” a “community service” experience, or a “values-based education.”

Here’s Crow on isomorphism:

If everyone is isomorphic in their thinking, they think their job is to replicate other institutions and to pursue those that are offering the same services but just trying to offer them a little better or in a better environment. To me that is a crushing force against innovation and adaptation because then everything is driven by the leader. Then there really are no innovations and no adaptations to changes because the leader sits in a different environment than all the other institutions sit in.

Few college and university presidents have had to deal with the challenges that Mike Crow has encountered. (Fewer still have had a Keith Jarrett-like experience.) But in the coming years, as adversity in multiple forms takes hold on campuses around the country – increasing demands for affordability, technological disruption, globalization and a quickly shrinking gap between labor market needs and what higher education needs to provide – many college and university presidents will have a Jarrett- or Crow-like moment. And when they do, different-thinking leaders will drive innovation through their institutions and make music for the ages.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV expects to set new standards for student outcomes and advance the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.