A year ago, the Association of American Universities quietly revised the criteria it uses to decide which research institutions deserve a place in the highly selective group. The impact of those changes is now being felt -- like a punch in the gut -- by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Syracuse University, which are leaving the association.
The group's members have voted to drop Nebraska against its will, marking the first time that the association has formally dumped one of its own. Syracuse, by contrast, after trying to persuade AAU members that the New York university's strengths continue to place it among the nation's best, is in "discussions about withdrawing" from the association, Chancellor Nancy Cantor confirmed Sunday.
Officials at both institutions complain that the metrics the group uses to assess its members define the contributions of high-quality research universities too narrowly, focusing excessively on biomedical research and the volume of federally supported research. To Nebraska officials, that means undervaluing the university's land-grant mission, and in the eyes of administrators at Syracuse, giving inadequate weight to interdisciplinary and urban-focused research to which few federal funds flow.
The AAU is made up of 62 public and private research universities  in the United States and Canada, and membership in the group has historically been much sought by institutions as a sign of prestige, as well as quality.
A year ago, said Robert M. Berdahl, AAU's president, the association -- facing criticism from some would-be members that there were stronger universities outside AAU than some inside it -- decided for the first time that in reviewing its members, it would compare them to non-member institutions as well as to members. The group also declared, for the first time, that "we no longer presume that continuation [in the association] is a given," Berdahl said in an interview Sunday night. "The notion that once you’re in, you’re in forever, is no longer the operative assumption."
Nebraska is only the third institution to leave the AAU in its 111-year history and the first to force a vote from the association's members on whether it would remain affiliated. When Clark University left the AAU in 1999, and the Catholic University of America in 2002, both said that they were leaving voluntarily because their missions no longer aligned with the AAU's focus on research (although there was much speculation that they had been pushed).
No Room for Nebraska
Nebraska made no such concession. The university has been a member of the AAU since 1909, but its status has been rocky for more than a decade. In 2000, Nebraska survived a review with its membership intact and began taking steps to improve its standing within the association, Chancellor Harvey Perlman said in an interview on Friday. By some measures, that effort was successful: over the last decade, Nebraska ranked seventh among AAU members in percentage growth of research expenditures.
University officials were aware that because of the association's rankings methodology, they would land at the bottom of the list if AAU were to review its membership, which the organization can do at any time, Perlman said. When the association undertook such a review of Nebraska in November, the university was outranked by all other AAU member universities as well as by 14 non-members.
The AAU's ranking criteria  consider five major factors: research expenditures normalized by number of faculty, National Academy members, the National Research Council faculty quality indicators, some faculty honors and scholarly citations.
Nebraska is at a disadvantage for at least two reasons in the AAU rankings. The University of Nebraska system's medical school is not affiliated with the flagship Lincoln campus, meaning that federal grants for health research are not counted among the overall research expenditures. The university also is heavily focused on agricultural research, but the AAU does not give Agriculture Department grants as much weight.
USDA and other private grants, as well as doctoral and undergraduate education, are considered in a secondary phase of the ranking, and given less weight because they are often not awarded through a competitive process. So although agriculture faculty are counted for rankings purposes, most of the research dollars they attract are not, Perlman wrote in a letter to campus Friday.
But administrators had hoped that the association would consider other factors, including faculty awards and commendations and other indicators of quality not considered in the initial formula. The association considers qualitative measures when admitting new members, and Nebraska hoped that its progress in attracting research funding would be taken into account. "I thought, and still do, that Nebraska had a good case," Perlman said, citing the growth of research funding and faculty awards as well as partnerships with top-ranked AAU universities, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I think it was unfortunate that the membership didn't agree."
The AAU membership process is confidential, said Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the association. A letter from the AAU to Nebraska announcing the review in November seemed to indicate that the association was reviewing Nebraska individually rather than as part of a broad look at the membership.
While the benefits of membership for AAU universities are frequently intangible -- prestige and lobbying clout -- Nebraska can point to one effect in particular in recent years: when the Big Ten Conference began considering expanding, the conference, which is made up entirely of AAU members, wanted to add fellow members of the group. When Nebraska was invited to join the Big Ten, both the conference and the university said at the time that its AAU designation was a key factor -- enough so that numerous sports writers tracking the Big Ten sweepstakes at the time (who, if they had previously written at all about the AAU, would have been referring to the Amateur Athletic Union) had to learn about another AAU.
The loss of membership, while a blow to Nebraska's reputation, is likely to have few short-term effects. "Almost all" of the Big Ten universities were supportive of Nebraska during the review process, Perlman said. "We strive to be the best public university in the country as measured by the impact we have on our people and our state, and through them, the world," he wrote. "On that ranking, I think we are in the top tier."
Whether Nebraska's loss of membership will have ramifications for other members remains to be seen. "There’s strong pressure within the group to become smaller," Perlman said. "It’s hard for me to understand the advantages of that.... If they continue to get smaller, there are other very distinguished universities that are very vulnerable to losing their membership."
Public universities make up a slight majority of AAU members, and many of those conduct a significant amount of agriculture research, including Texas A&M University and several members of the Big Ten conference. But the universities that might be most vulnerable, from a purely numerical standpoint, are private universities that receive relatively few federal research dollars, including Syracuse and Brandeis University.
Syracuse Takes a Hint
Syracuse, like Nebraska, lacks a medical school, and engineering and science make up a comparatively small volume of its overall research enterprise. And although it has nearly doubled the amount of sponsored research it conducts over the last decade, much of that support has come from state and corporate sources, said Cantor, the chancellor.
Cantor asserted in an interview that the changes AAU had made in its membership criteria last year had put more emphasis on the volume of federally sponsored science and engineering research and put a particularly premium on biomedical studies.
Berdahl of AAU challenged that assertion, saying that no changes were made in the criteria themselves or in how they are weighted. What has changed, he said, is that the massive expansion of federal spending on biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health has "strengthened the profile" of universities inside and outside AAU to which Syracuse, Nebraska and other institutions without medical schools are compared.
AAU's methods of measuring institutions, Cantor said, place comparatively little value on Syracuse's strongest schools (in public affairs and architecture) and on the sorts of research that Syracuse emphasizes in areas such as environmental sustainability, urban education and other work important to its city and region.
"They have gone in a very different direction, and that's fine," Cantor said. "We are who we are, and who we've always been, and they get to do what they want to do.... The important thing from our perspective is that there is a lot of really significant research, from a quality and impact standpoint, that just isn't captured by their metrics. It's fine to emphasize a particular slice of science R&D, but there's also a lot of really important work out in the world that isn't captured."