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Arizona State and OpenAI Announce New Partnership—But Why?

In January 2024, Arizona State University announced it had entered into a strategic institutional-level partnership with OpenAI, the developer of the ChatGPT platform, as the first university to partner with the firm. But questions as to why the deal came about initially left many observers scratching their heads.

“ASU recognizes that augmented and artificial intelligence systems are here to stay, and we are optimistic about their ability to become incredible tools that help students to learn, learn more quickly, and understand subjects more thoroughly,” ASU’s President Dr. Michael Crow said in a statement about the partnership.

However, now almost four months later, it remains less than clear as to what measurable results ASU and OpenAI expect to gain from this deal—and OpenAI has thus far announced no other university partnerships.

Demonstrating AI Skills to Potential Employers

Although details remain sketchy, the core of the partnership appears to encompass unlimited access to OpenAI’s state-of-the-art GPT-4 technology at no charge for the Arizona State campus community. That community includes faculty, staff, researchers, and students working on AI projects that the San Francisco company approves.

Limited access to GPT-4 currently remains available for free through web browsers compatible with Microsoft’s Copilot platform under the “More Creative” conversation style setting. OpenAI charges individuals $240 per year for GPT-4 accounts, plus usage fees for certain capabilities like batch processing that can add up to hefty charges for research and commercial projects. However, discounts of 50 percent are now available for batch query jobs that users will permit OpenAI to schedule and run up to 24 hours later, such as tagging images or assigning categories to data.

Apparently, Arizona State’s leadership primarily wants to ensure that inability to pay doesn’t prevent students from gaining enough hands-on experience with GPT-4 to impress potential employers. ASU’s deputy chief information officer Kyle Bowen told the Chronicle of Higher Education that one of the partnership’s objectives is to make “an investment in the future of technology innovation” by helping to “ensure equitable access for students who are going to go into the workplace and have access to these technologies.”

“Research shows that nearly two-thirds of organizations are already actively exploring the integration of AI,” said Dr. Lev Gonick, the university’s chief information officer, in a prepared statement. “By providing access to advanced AI capabilities, these tools are leveling the playing field, allowing individuals and organizations—regardless of size or resources—to harness the power of AI for creative and innovative endeavors.”

ASU’s AI Innovation Challenge Gains Momentum

On February 1, Arizona State launched their OpenAI initiative, branded as the AI Innovation Challenge. On that date, the university started accepting proposals from faculty and staff that outlined their project’s ideas, along with criteria for evaluating each project’s effectiveness.

A news release from ASU said that the university sought proposals in three main areas: enhancing student success, forging new avenues for innovative research, and streamlining organizational processes. Those areas were further refined into three modified categories: innovations in teaching and learning, AI research with societal impact, and “scaling the public enterprise,” a curious category name encompassing proposals that predict generative AI’s likely influence on the workforce throughout Arizona.

ASU then collected 175 proposals from employees during the first two weeks and accepted 105 of those proposals for further consideration. Most of the accepted proposals (49) focused on teaching and learning innovations, and OpenAI agreed to issue 863 unlimited-use licenses for GPT-4 as a result.

Round Two of the Challenge got underway on March 25, and gave students the opportunity to submit proposals along with faculty and staff. This time, the acceptable categories included teaching and learning support within classroom sections of up to 50 students; use-inspired research for communities, industries and the environment; and enhancements to the future of work for ASU faculty and staff.

Negotiations, Incentives and Concerns

CNBC reported that the ASU/OpenAI deal took six months to negotiate. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, and Bowen declined to comment when the Chronicle asked how much money ASU had agreed to pay OpenAI.

Another potential incentive driving ASU to launch this partnership might be to offer a competitive advantage against other universities in recruiting new students for both on-campus and online programs. Students in several high-demand fields such as computer science, data science and electrical engineering might perceive unlimited, free-of-charge GPT-4 access to be a compelling reason to choose ASU over competing institutions without that advantage. No-cost, unlimited access would enable these students to pursue research interests and develop showcase projects that they could then present to potential employers.

Some Arizona State officials reportedly voiced privacy concerns in that they didn’t want confidential or proprietary data contributed by members of the ASU community appropriated by OpenAI to train public large language models (LLMs).

However, a new OpenAI service introduced during the summer of 2023 called ChatGPT Enterprise enables the university to set up its own private “walled garden” workspace. Such a “sandbox” will only be available to authorized ASU community members who’ve been granted proper credentials, such as university email addresses and passwords.

What Does ASU Offer OpenAI?

As we had discussed in a feature article on our sister site BSchools, OpenAI made headlines in November 2023 when the firm fired and quickly re-hired its popular CEO, Sam Altman (see OpenAI’s Sam Altman Firing and Reinstatement: Professors Weigh In). And if OpenAI had been seeking extensive free publicity through a deal with an enormous innovative university capable of churning out massive volumes of newsworthy research, they probably came to the right place.

Arizona State is now the nation’s third-largest “megaversity,” eclipsed in enrollment only by the predominantly online Southern New Hampshire University and Salt Lake City’s 100 percent online Western Governors University. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics compiled by higher education industry analyst Phil Hill, in 2022, ASU enrolled a whopping 170,448 students. Eighty-seven percent of those students (148,355) were enrolled in at least one online course, with 90,905 enrolled exclusively in online instruction. That leaves a minority of 79,543 students attending face-to-face classes on the Sun Devils’ sprawling campus in Tempe, Arizona.

Moreover, in 2024 U.S. News and World Report ranks Arizona State number one in its “Most Innovative Schools” category—a stunning achievement given the impressive competitors. ASU beat runners-up Georgia State, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech and Stanford for the top spot. ASU also ranks a very respectable number 51 overall out of the 227 American universities in the publication’s “Top Public Schools” category.

Controversy and Criticism

Despite the enthusiastic endorsements from the university’s leadership, the deal sparked controversy among students. In fact, ASU’s student newspaper, The State Press, has published a series of recent articles and op-eds criticizing ChatGPT and the OpenAI deal.

Katrina Michalak, the paper’s community and culture desk editor and a sophomore journalism major, wrote one of the first of these critiques in February. Within that essay she recounts how she had interviewed Dr. Andrew Maynard, a professor at the university’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

Michalak had asked him what he learned when he had asked one of his fall 2023 classes what they thought about using ChatGPT. Dr. Maynard told Michalak that two main responses had characterized the students’ feedback:

The first response came from a student who argued that they were the ones who wanted to learn, not the machine. Why would they make the machine do the work for them?

The second response came from a student who raised another point: they were paying for this degree. Why would they not do the work for something they invested so much time and money in?

Given that ChatGPT is changing so rapidly, Michalak had also questioned how Arizona State could possibly keep up with the software’s development so that students could recognize the platform’s benefits. After all, Dr. Maynard already had to drop a course he had taught during two semesters about prompt engineering with ChatGPT for that reason:

Maynard designed an online prompt engineering course for students to develop the skills needed to use AI effectively. The course was available during the summer and fall of 2023.

Now, in 2024, Maynard won’t be teaching that course again.

“The main thing is the technology is moving so fast,” Maynard said. “The course is already out of date. If we were to keep it relevant, we’d have to reinvent the course every time we taught it.”

In this interview, Michalak then explained to public station KJZZ-FM in Tempe that “the technology developed so rapidly that the course essentially wasn’t useful anymore for students.” Oddly enough, in a textbook example of a large organization’s failing to “speak with a single voice,” university administrators had told CNBC in January that ASU had actually planned to broaden the university’s prompt engineering course, not drop it. Dr. Gonick even pointed out that the course had turned into one of the university’s most popular classes, not limited to engineering students.

However, it wasn’t as if Michalak saw no redeeming benefits for the use of ChatGPT at ASU. She did perceive some value in the potential use of the platform for tutoring students: “A potential proposal could be the use of personal tutors, which I can see the benefit to that. I mean, I do think there are benefits to ChatGPT. The use of a personal tutor could be helpful if, say, a professor is teaching a lecture with upwards of 300, 400 students. So I understand why it might be beneficial.”

Tutoring also happens to be one of the benefits of ChatGPT frequently cited by President Crow in meetings with the editorial board of the State Press and in student forums. In March, he said, “So one of the AI applications that we’re looking at is: ‘Could we build an AI tool that can be a tutor?’”

Two weeks later, in April, President Crow sounded even more enthusiastic about AI tutoring applications. He also said, “You’re going to have an intelligent tutor and an intelligent assistant working with you in many courses going forward. We have about 100 of these projects underway. We have about 1,000 faculty members that are being trained in AI right now, so we’re off to a pretty good start.”

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.