Nebraska's Ouster Opens a Painful Debate Within the AAU

U. of Nebraska at Lincoln

Being expelled from the Association of American Universities, after being a member for more than a century, has hurt the U. of Nebraska at Lincoln, whose leaders believe that some of its strengths have been overlooked.
May 02, 2011

In the end, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln lost its bid to remain in the exclusive Association of American Universities by just two votes.

Nebraska’s chancellor, Harvey Perlman, learned the institution’s fate on April 26 after an angry, isolating month in which he had fought to keep it in the association. A two-thirds majority was needed to remove Nebraska, and 44 ended up voting against the institution during a balloting period that was extended to solicit votes from as many members as possible.

Three days later, on April 29, Mr. Perlman sent an e-mail to the Lincoln campus announcing the result: that after 102 years, the flagship university was out of the association that represents 62 of the most prestigious research universities in the United States and Canada.

"There was really nothing more you could have accomplished to forestall this result," Mr. Perlman wrote in the e-mail to the campus.

Though two member institutions had left on their own before, the association had never voted to throw out a member. The unprecedented move was fraught with intrigue and politics not typical of staid and collegial academic associations, say several presidents in the AAU with knowledge of the process who asked not to be named because of the group's confidential proceedings.

"There were a lot of people who didn't want them disassociated," said one public-university president. "I don't think you'll see another vote anytime soon on eliminating a member. The wounds are too great over this episode. I anticipate a lot of future debate over the criteria."

The AAU's two-phase membership criteria focus primarily on an institution's amount of competitive research funds and its share of faculty members who belong to the National Academies. Faculty awards and citations are also taken into account.

Presidents say that in recent years discussions about membership in the association have become much more quantified, with an increasing emphasis on a rankings methodology developed by the membership committee and senior AAU staff. Last April the association as a whole adopted revised criteria that compared AAU institutions with nonmembers on research dollars and eliminated the assumption that current members would automatically continue on.

"It was very clear that the easiest path to scoring high on the criteria is to have large medical schools or large science and engineering faculties," said Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University, which was reviewed along with Nebraska and has decided to leave the AAU voluntarily in the coming months (see a related article).

The membership committee was responsible for drafting the new criteria, and presidents who recall last spring's meeting said there was little discussion of the new method among the full membership before it was adopted. "Many of us didn't realize the full impact of that new criteria," Ms. Cantor said.

Another university leader said that, given that the association is made up of presidents who regularly criticize university rankings, "there's concern by some of us that too many membership decisions are being made purely by the numbers."

"That's why this vote [on Nebraska] was so divided," said the president, who leads a private institution. "I think that it shows the membership itself is divided about what it means to be a top research university."

But with so many rising research institutions knocking at the door of the AAU and other established research powerhouses wondering why they are not members, one camp of presidents within the association believe that numbers should drive decisions to bring credibility to the process. In an analysis conducted last year by The Chronicle, several non-AAU members outpaced current AAU members in federal research dollars.

"The greatest debates within AAU tend to be reserved for who is in and who isn't in," said the public-university president. 

 A year ago, the AAU invited its first new member in nearly a decade, the Georgia Institute of Technology. Some presidents don't want the group to get too big, and so as it adds members, they believe those at the bottom of the rankings should be pruned.

"At 100 members, it's no longer a private group," said another public-university president. "The advantage of this association, compared to others in higher ed, is that we're all supposed to be alike. If that's no longer the case, then we lose the benefits of membership"

The AAU has a reputation as a private club, and all of its meetings are closed to the news media. Nebraska, not the AAU, announced the results of this membership vote.

On Friday afternoon, the association's president, Robert M. Berdahl, released a statement through the group's spokesman: "The University of Nebraska is a fine institution and has been a valued member of AAU since 1909. This process has been difficult and, frankly, painful, for the association and its members. The association followed its policy and process in conducting this review and in carrying out this decision."

'Strong Forces Against' Nebraska

The vote on Nebraska began at an association meeting at the Four Seasons here, on April 10. That Sunday evening, as AAU presidents prepared for a reception, Mr. Perlman learned that the group's Executive Committee had voted 9 to 1 to end the relationship. Now the question would go to the full membership for a vote.

"By this time, I'm reasonably certain that there are strong forces against the University of Nebraska, and I guess I was angry," Mr. Perlman recalled in an interview on Saturday.

Over the next day and a half, Mr. Perlman became increasingly isolated from an elite club whose majority would ultimately secure his institution's banishment. Feeling sucker-punched, Mr. Perlman skipped the reception at the posh hotel in Georgetown. While presidents sipped cocktails between 7 and 9 in the evening, ballots were slipped under their doors, along with a 44-page four-color report prepared by Nebraska officials touting the university's accomplishments of the past decade.

Although the process had dragged on since the review of Nebraska began in February, remarkably few presidents in the association knew of Nebraska's precarious status until they returned to their rooms to find the ballots.

"There were many of my friends in the AAU who came to me Monday morning and said, 'What the hell is going on? This is amazing,'" Mr. Perlman said.

Mr. Perlman says he engaged in some limited lobbying of presidents in hotel hallways, but his final push came the afternoon of April 11 in a 20-minute presentation before the full membership of the AAU. He was then excused from the meeting, as his peers deliberated in a closed executive session.

At 6 p.m. that evening, the presidents were bused off to dinner. Mr. Perlman did not accompany them, opting instead to dine alone.

Mr. Perlman said he was fully aware the review would be personally and professionally difficult, but it was a battle he thought worth waging, even though, he said, Mr. Berdahl had hinted early on that Nebraska could avoid all the messiness by simply stepping away from the AAU voluntarily.

"It might have been better for my faculty and my institution if I had quietly slipped out the back door," he said in retrospect. "But I think that would have diminished the accomplishments we've made and the quality of our institution. I wasn't going to do that."

AAU leaders asked that the ballots be cast before the presidents left town on April 12. Ballots were sent to those presidents who didn't attend the meeting the next day, and all ballots were due by April 18.

The April 18 deadline for votes apparently caused some confusion among several presidents. Those who talked with The Chronicle said it was clear that April 18 was the day ballots would be counted. But AAU officials told Mr. Perlman that April 18 was the deadline for ballots to be postmarked, according to an e-mail exchange between the chancellor and Mr. Berdahl, which was released with other documents on Friday by Nebraska at the request of The Chronicle.

When April 21 arrived and the AAU still hadn't heard from several presidents, the association e-mailed them, asking them to vote by overnight mail or indicate they didn't intend to vote.

"We have established no hard deadline after which we would disqualify votes," Mr. Berdahl wrote in an e-mail to Mr. Perlman on April 22. "We have two cases of presidents out of the country from whom we will hear on Monday or Tuesday at the latest, and we will then have heard from everybody."

The deadline was significant because any abstention would be counted as a vote in favor of retaining Nebraska, Mr. Perlman said. When the AAU appeared to be seeking additional ballots beyond the deadline, Mr. Perlman concluded that "they probably didn't have the votes" and were determined to get them.

In an e-mail to Mr. Berdahl, Mr. Perlman wrote that the extension of the deadline was "one more instance where the process ... has created the impression in my mind, and in the mind of others, that the leadership is determined to achieve a particular result regardless of the rules."

"When the details of this process become public," Mr. Perlman added, "it will hardly serve the reputation or credibility of the AAU."

Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the AAU, said Sunday that the April 18 date was only a target designed to bring the voting to a swift conclusion.

"Getting a two-thirds vote of the entire membership is a rule that's been in place for over 10 years, and it was always the intent to get a response from every president or chancellor," he said. "The purpose of the deadline was merely to expedite that process. There was not an intent to exclude any votes that might follow it."

Jared L. Cohon, chairman of the AAU Executive Committee and president of Carnegie Mellon University, defended the process in an interview Sunday.

"The result was not predetermined," he said. "It was done very carefully and very sensitively, following a process that was laid out to the whole membership well in advance and with which the entire membership agreed."

"There's no perfect way to do this, and having any member leave is a very difficult and painful process, especially one that has been a member as long as Nebraska has been," he added. "Certainly, I think we've learned from this, but I stand behind the process entirely."

Quantifying a University's Research

It's not clear what prompted the special reviews of Nebraska and Syracuse last year, except that they ranked at the bottom of the AAU metrics.

What particularly hurt Nebraska in those metrics is that as a land-grant institution in a farming state, it gets a large share of its research dollars for agriculture. The entire University of Nebraska system had $13.2-million in federally financed farm-related research in 2008, or about 10 percent of its total federal research dollars, as compared with a nationwide average of about 3 percent.

The AAU, however, does not give such research the same weight in its membership criteria because much of federal support for agricultural work is awarded through formulas and earmarks rather than peer-reviewed grants. As a result, presidents of land-grant institutions say that the AAU metrics are stacked against them. They maintain that differences between states in climate, soil, and crops necessitate formula-driven funds.

Large public institutions like Nebraska are also hurt in the AAU rankings by a process the association calls "normalization," which seeks to determine per-faculty research rewards by dividing total research dollars by the number of faculty members at an institution.

For Nebraska, that means the total research dollars are divided by a significant portion of faculty devoted to agricultural research, even though their research rewards are not considered as valuable under AAU metrics. The normalization process tends to help smaller members with smaller overall research budgets, like Brandeis and Rice Universities.

Mr. Cohon stressed that the metrics are a product of years of discussion and analysis by the organization's membership. It is possible that a large number of faculty conducting agricultural research could penalize an institution, but "that's not the case here," he said.

"While there is no perfect set of metrics, I think there is a broad sense of satisfaction with the metrics we have," Mr. Cohon said.

In his e-mail to the campus and in interviews with The Chronicle, Mr. Perlman said what put Nebraska at a particular disadvantage was the lack of an on-campus medical school.

While other AAU members, such as Cornell and Pennsylvania State Universities, for instance, lack medical schools on their main campuses, Nebraska's medical school is also under a totally separate administrative structure from the Lincoln campus, an arrangement that is unlike the ones at those other institutions. As a result, its research dollars are not counted by the AAU, even though, as a medical school, it can't belong to the association on its own.

A medical school both improves an institution's absolute number of research dollars and improves its score on the ratio of research output to tenure-track faculty, since medical schools often rely heavily on researchers who are not tenure-track faculty, Mr. Perlman said.

Plea for a 'Qualitative Judgment'

The AAU also put Nebraska at a comparative disadvantage by not penalizing institutions that rely heavily on a small number of academic fields for their overall research dollars, despite the association's stated commitment to diversity of mission, Mr. Perlman said.

The chancellor, however, said over the weekend that he did not have data that would make clear the national ranking of the Lincoln campus on the various metrics he said he prefers.

When counting research dollars systemwide, he said, the entire University of Nebraska can claim only that it is "ahead of at least two or three" AAU institutions with medical schools. And while estimating that 20 percent to 25 percent of the tenure-track or tenured faculty on the Lincoln campus work in agriculture, Mr. Perlman said he does not have data comparing his institution to others in the AAU without including their agriculture-based faculty.

Rather than emphasize exact national rankings on those points, Mr. Perlman told The Chronicle, he asked the AAU to "make a qualitative judgment, as their rules require, about whether we were compatible with other AAU institutions."

"Ultimately," he said, "I made no claim that we would be in the top ranks of AAU under perfect conditions."

Mr. Perlman's plea for counting medical-school activity isn't necessarily supported by data from the National Science Foundation, which publishes a tally of university research spending from all sources by institutions with medical schools. The NSF's latest annual compilation, for 2008, shows that the University of Nebraska system ranked 39th in the nation.

Mr. Perlman's strongest claim may be that of recent growth, even if it isn't a major factor in the AAU evaluation process. From 1999 to 2009, the University of Nebraska system had the fifth-largest percentage growth in federally financed research expenditures of any college that was in the top 100 for federal money in 1999. Its federally financed expenditures more than doubled over that period, to $148.6-million. The Nebraska system also rose 19 places—to 68th from 87th—on the list of universities reporting the most federally financed expenditures.

As for what the decision means for Nebraska as an institution, Mr. Perlman said that as he looked at the university's accomplishments of the past decade, only one may have been helped because of its AAU membership: the invitation last year to join the Big Ten, given that all its members are also part of the AAU.

While AAU membership conveys a certain cachet, several well-known research heavyweights, such as Boston University, Dartmouth College, North Carolina State University, and the University of Georgia, are not members.

"As appropriate for a private organization, AAU makes its own membership decisions on its own criteria," M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said in an interview on Saturday. "However, a number of major research universities are not members of AAU, and the sum of the whole is what makes the U.S. academic research enterprise so productive and politically potent."

Paul Basken and Jeffrey Brainard also contributed to this article.

that compared AAU institutions with non-members on research dollars and eliminated the assumption that current members would continue on.