Conflict at the Northern Border

After significant pushback, primary association of American research universities withdraws proposal that would have expelled its two Canadian members.

October 8, 2019

The Association of American Universities has, like most of Washington's other lobbying groups, taken great umbrage at Trump administration policies and rhetoric suggesting that the United States would be better off if its borders were tighter and the world was less flat. The research university group has opposed the administration's travel ban, fretted over visa restrictions on Chinese students and sought to protect the children of undocumented immigrants, among other things.

But the association -- without meaning to, its leaders insist -- appeared last week to send its own signals about turning inward and excluding the rest of the world when its leaders told AAU's two Canadian members, McGill University and the University of Toronto, that its board had approved a new policy that would restrict membership to U.S.-based universities, pending a vote of the 60 U.S. members at a meeting this month.

"This change was based on the imperative that we focus on the issues critical to U.S. research universities and to reflect the reality that AAU represents America’s leading research universities," AAU's leaders wrote in a letter to the presidents of its 60 U.S.-based members. "The decision was not informed by, and is not a reflection of, the quality of the graduate education and research programs of our Canadian colleague institutions."

The presidents of McGill and Toronto, which have belonged to AAU since 1926, said in their own letter to AAU's members last Friday that they were "dismayed and disappointed" by the "abruptness of the decision and the manner in which it was taken," they wrote -- especially given their assertion that they'd had no sense that such a policy change was under consideration before a late-July heads-up from Mary Sue Coleman, AAU's president.

The decision sent a dismaying message, suggested Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice chancellor of McGill, and Meric S. Gertler, president of Toronto. "There is no doubt that many may see this action as a parochial retreat from global engagement by America’s leading research universities. That is certainly how it struck us."

They continued, "At a time when the world is becoming more fractured and divided, when many governments are retreating from global engagement and erecting barriers (both perceived and real), it makes compelling sense for great research universities to be working together to counteract such trends, and to champion openness and the free flow of people and ideas across borders."

The letter from AAU's leaders flatly rejected assertions that the policy change was "a withdrawal from our international obligations or from our commitment to the open exchange of ideas across national boundaries." The association instead said it needed to direct its own resources by focusing more narrowly "on the issues critical to U.S. research universities and to reflect the reality that AAU represents America’s leading research universities." (Careful readers will note that Canada is part of "America," or at least North America.)

Coleman and AAU's board chair, Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana University, told Gertler and Fortier in letters late last month that the association considers it "vital that AAU strengthen its interactions with the U15" Group of Canadian Research Universities, "to ensure the cross-border relationship between our two organizations flourishes."

Whatever the reasons for its decision, AAU received significant blowback not only from the Canadian institutions but from some of its U.S. members, who argued that it seemed tone-deaf for an association whose core enterprise -- scientific research and education -- is an increasingly global one. The seeming parallel to the inward-lookingness of the Trump administration didn't help.

By Sunday, just days after the dueling letters sent to AAU's members, the association's board had reconsidered its earlier vote and withdrawn the policy, an AAU spokesman said in an email.

By late Monday, McGill and Toronto appeared to be solidly back in the AAU fold, as if nothing had happened.

"This is to confirm that McGill is still and continues to be a member of AAU," a spokesman said via email, "as we’ve been for the past 93 years."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top