Examining the AAU Gatekeepers

In wake of Nebraska's ouster and Syracuse's decision to leave research university group, some institutions look over their shoulders, and other experts question membership criteria.
May 11, 2011

When the Association of American Universities voted in April to strip the University of Nebraska at Lincoln of its membership, it was the first time in the organization’s 111-year history that members had so blatantly turned on one of their own, an event widely described as “unprecedented.” The question now is whether it will be repeated.

The vote to kick out Nebraska, and to nudge out Syracuse University, which chose to leave the AAU, followed a quiet rethinking of the organization’s membership: it no longer comes with a lifetime guarantee.

For the 61 remaining members, especially those who superficially resemble Nebraska or Syracuse, this might be a reason to look over their shoulders. Officials at many such universities say they are confident that they perform well in the metrics AAU uses to assess candidates as well as evaluate members and, increasingly, determine whether they will retain their place in the group. Still, most are also taking steps to shore up their research performance, often through strategic plans that were already in place before the membership vote last month.(Note: This paragraph has been changed to correctly reflect the number of universities in the AAU.)

At the same time, the departures have rekindled debate about the AAU’s ranking methodology and whether membership in the elite group has been given too much weight.

“Universities are prestige-maximizing entities,” said Ronald Ehrenberg, a professor of labor relations and economics at Cornell University who has written extensively on the role of higher education. “But I think you sort of have to ask: At what price prestige?”

The AAU evaluates its members based on five major criteria: research expenditures normalized by number of faculty, National Academy members, the National Research Council faculty quality indicators, a selection of faculty honors, and scholarly citations.

By those markings, Nebraska had been on shaky ground within the AAU for more than a decade. The medical school for the University of Nebraska system is not affiliated with the flagship campus in Lincoln, meaning that research dollars from the National Institutes of Health do not count in its overall expenditures. The university’s land-grant mission means it conducts a significant amount of agricultural research -- federal funding for which is given much less weight in the association's rankings.

Should the AAU continue to cull its members, universities with similar profiles might be considered the most vulnerable, but the shock waves from Nebraska’s ouster and Syracuse’s decision to leave extend beyond the few members that look like them. “For all of the universities in AAU that are not at the very top, it raises the question of what will eventually be their vulnerability,” University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said.

Too Big to Succeed?

In the days following Nebraska’s ouster, Chancellor Harvey Perlman argued that the vote was part of a larger push within AAU to make the organization smaller and more elite. Though the association’s membership remains diverse, including both public institutions and wealthy private universities of varying sizes, it is unclear whether the association will reach out to replace the two departing members.

A bigger membership means more clout on Capitol Hill, presuming that institutions come from a wide range of states. (More than one observer noted that in dumping Nebraska, the AAU might have lost the support of 2 of 100 U.S. senators.) But it could also get unwieldy. Of the national higher education organizations, AAU is among the smallest, which some members say is one of its strengths.

As the number of universities focusing on research has expanded since the 1970s, with research paid for by the National Institutes of Health increasing especially, more institutions have been able to argue that they deserve membership, said Irwin Feller, a professor emeritus of economics at Pennsylvania State University who studies science and technology policy and the economics of higher education. “There will always be some institutions whose credentials are at least as good as the last member” of the association, he said.

For Rice University, one of the smallest institutions in the AAU, the diversity of membership -- including both huge public universities and private institutions known for work outside the sciences -- is important, President David Leebron said. But so is the group’s small size, he said, describing the association as an “intimate environment” in which members can easily reach out to each other and the group's leaders. “It works a certain way because of its size,” he said. “If it were much larger than it is now, it would probably function in a substantially different way.”

Counting and Dividing

One factor that keeps the AAU membership more diverse than it otherwise might be is the normalization process, which measures research funding per faculty member (rather than in raw dollars over all for the institution). Some universities that appear to be outliers, with relatively small levels of federal spending, might in fact be secure in their membership after the numbers are normalized.

Rice, which received $55 million in federal research money in 2008, ranks far below most of its fellow members in that figure alone. But the university’s small size, with 650 total full-time faculty, plays in its favor, Leebron said. “We feel pretty comfortable on the criteria that says it’s something about the quality and intensity of research in the university, not the total research dollars,” he said.

Another beneficiary is Brandeis University, which with only $38 million in federal spending in 2008 might appear among the most vulnerable institutions. “I think we certainly belong in the AAU," President Frederick Lawrence said. “The norming to the size of the school is so important. That, to me, is the best answer to the argument that the AAU is monolithic.”

For institutions like Nebraska, though, normalization has drawbacks. Administrators there argued that counting agriculture faculty for normalization purposes but discounting research money awarded through the Agriculture Department in the initial criteria was a one-two punch that put the university at a disadvantage.

A former president of a public AAU institution who requested anonymity in discussing the association said that normalization could discourage universities from adding faculty who focus on teaching rather than research, and stem expansion at a time when there is a growing emphasis on increasing the country's graduation rates.

The same could be said for faculty members who work in fields less likely to attract research money. “If you’re trying to get in to the AAU and you have a choice between a faculty member that produces outside dollars, versus a humanities professor that almost certainly would not, you shouldn’t hire the humanities professor,” the former president said. “Now you know what the criteria [are] generally, will you grow in students for areas in which you’re unlikely to get outside research dollars?”

Others said that scenario was far-fetched. While universities are not above making moves to benefit their standing in various rankings, whether the AAU’s or those in U.S. News and World Report, focusing on a medical school at the expense of an engineering school or the liberal arts is “such a large change,” Feller said. “Maybe there are universities that do this over time, but it has to be tied into a larger vision.”

The Value of Agriculture

In compiling its rankings, the AAU gives more weight to competitively awarded federal grants, such as those through the NIH or National Science Foundation, than to funding from the USDA, which is awarded by formula. Nebraska’s ejection has revived a long-simmering debate over whether that is the correct approach.

Recipients of Agriculture Department funding aren’t hayseeds or inferior scientists, administrators of land-grant universities argue. They are academic researchers whose work helps combat hunger and contributes to scientific advances across a broad range of disciplines. Some are pushing for the association to reconsider the weight it gives to agricultural research spending.

“Have we effectively recognized the power of the research that has been undertaken by first-rate scientists that come from that strong agricultural research base?” asked Brady Deaton, chancellor of the University of Missouri at Columbia. “We have to make sure that we’re properly evaluating. From an AAU perspective, we’ve got some work to do there so that it properly reflects the strength of American higher education.”

Agricultural funding is awarded by formula for reasons that extend beyond the political, he said. Spreading the money out across the nation ensures that every agricultural zone is taken into account; plant research in Oregon would have different outcomes from plant research in Oklahoma.

“These are first-rate scientists in our land-grant universities,” Deaton said. “Those funds are financing the salaries and the time commitments of our first-rate researchers.”

He suggested that the association might take the output of agricultural research into account, such as articles published in peer-reviewed journals. The discussion is continuing, and while it might not reach a resolution, he predicted that the landscape would look different in 10 years.

“We’ve got to continue to examine alternate measures,” he said. “We’ve got to ensure we have adequate time to discuss what counts and what doesn’t, and whether or not we’re really addressing the issues.”

Measuring Excellence

In leaving the AAU, Syracuse might have jumped because it was about to be pushed. But it drew praise from Feller and Ehrenberg, the experts on the economics of higher education, for choosing to focus on what it does well rather than what the AAU thinks it should do.

“It is sort of amusing that these institutions are becoming more homogeneous, becoming more uniform, as opposed to sort of creating unique, new niches,” Ehrenberg said of research universities. “We can’t all be everything to everyone. We have to sort of appreciate the special strengths.”

An increasing number of universities are qualified, and not all of them will ever make the cut. “It’s just not possible to have 50 universities make it into the top 10,” Feller said. The question, he added, is whether institutions will find other ways to judge quality on their own terms.

Leebron, the Rice president who would like to see the organization remain small, said that while there was no “magic number” for the ideal size, some universities will remain, or become, stellar institutions without the coveted badge of membership.

“We all ought to recognize that the more great research universities there are in the U.S., the better off we are as a country,” he said. “It might not be that all of them are members of the AAU.... That doesn’t diminish the good work that they carry on.”


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