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A month after the Association of American Universities proposed and then withdrew a plan to expel its two Canadian members, the research university group on Wednesday added three new members -- its first additions since 2012.

The inclusion of Dartmouth College, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of Utah will bring the research university group's membership roll to 65, its largest ever.

AAU has traditionally zealously guarded its selectivity, and in recent decades it has typically added new universities only after dropping existing members, or encouraging them to leave.

In 2001, for instance, it added the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Texas A&M University. Those additions were evened out with the departure of Clark University in 1999 and Catholic University of America in 2002.

Similarly, in 2011 Syracuse University and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln left the association -- Nebraska clearly pushed and unhappy about it, Syracuse insisting that it had left on its own but not exactly voluntarily.

On either side of that move, the association added the Georgia Institute of Technology (in 2010) and Boston University (in 2012).

Most recently, the association awkwardly informed its members that it would restrict itself to U.S. universities going forward, meaning that its two Canadian institutions, McGill University, in Quebec, and the University of Toronto, would be dropped.

"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 leaders of the two Canadian institutions made their case to their fellow AAU members in their own letter, saying they were "dismayed and disappointed" by the "abruptness of the decision and the manner in which it was taken." Within days, the association reversed course on that policy change.

So the addition of the three new universities will expand AAU's membership to 65. That's notable for an organization that has always emphasized its selectivity and limited size, which it did in announcing the new members.

“AAU’s membership is limited to institutions at the forefront of scientific inquiry and educational excellence," Mary Sue Coleman, its president, said in a news release. "These world-class institutions are a welcome addition, and we look forward to working with them as we continue to shape policy for higher education, science, and innovation.”

“Becoming a part of AAU is particularly noteworthy, as invitations to new members are rare and extended only by vote of the current membership,” said Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana University and the association's board chair. “These institutions will help AAU’s collective mission of further strengthening the vital contributions of leading research universities to American society.”

The New Members

Santa Cruz becomes the seventh of the University of California's 10 campuses to belong to AAU, joining UC's Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara campuses. Santa Cruz ranks lower than all but two current AAU members (the University of Oregon and Brandeis University) in the 2017 federal ranking of total research and development expenditures (at 143, though it had been in the 120s in immediately preceding years), but the association's black box of membership criteria include a mix of "quantitative measures used to assess the breadth and quality of university programs of research and graduate education" and a "more qualitative set of judgments about an institution’s mission, characteristics, and trajectory."

“Our research and commitment to student success are united and animated by our social justice mission, and I am proud that AAU membership follows our recent recognition for contributions to student social mobility,” said Cynthia Larive, the chancellor at Santa Cruz. “That this is an honor conferred by our peers makes it especially rewarding.”

The University of Utah is an ascendant institution in a fast-growing state in a part of the country where AAU is not well represented; Utah becomes only the sixth member of the association from 16 westernmost states (excluding California).

“We are delighted to be invited to join the Association of American Universities, the most prestigious association in higher education,” said Ruth Watkins, Utah's president. “AAU requires its member institutions to be engaged at the highest levels of research, scholarship and education. Our selection as one of AAU’s newest members reflects the excellence the University of Utah has achieved in each of these areas.”

The addition of Dartmouth makes it the last of the Ivy League universities to join AAU. While the New Hampshire institution attracts students in large part based on the quality (and intimacy) of its undergraduate education, it has strong graduate schools and an increasing research portfolio.

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