Facing an Ouster From an Elite Group of Universities, Syracuse U. Says It Will Withdraw

May 02, 2011

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln wasn't the only institution whose membership in the Association of American Universities was at risk this spring.

Syracuse University, a member since 1966, was also placed under review last fall. But last month, as the review committee's work was concluding and it became clear that Syracuse wouldn't meet the association's revised membership criteria, university officials decided that they would leave the organization voluntarily, rather than face a vote like Nebraska's, and notified the leadership of their intentions.

On Sunday, in an interview with The Chronicle, Syracuse's chancellor, Nancy Cantor, confirmed that the university will withdraw from AAU membership in the coming months.

"We respect what the AAU is doing and where they are going," Ms. Cantor said. "If that's what they are focused on, so be it. We have momentum and we're proud of what we're doing, and that won't be affected by leaving the AAU."

Ms. Cantor called the revised membership criteria that the AAU adopted last spring "narrow," and said they rely on data in which federal research dollars in medicine and the sciences, in particular, were favored over other factors that she believes account for a broad-based research university tackling pressing problems.

"I respect what they're doing, but it doesn't mean that it covers the landscape for what research universities need to be doing to be critical this century," said Ms. Cantor, a former provost at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and former chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, both AAU members.

For example, the AAU discounts a university's research dollars from private industry or states because they are not generally awarded through a competitive, peer-review process.

But Ms. Cantor said Syracuse, like a growing number of other universities, is working on research projects that receive money from a variety of sources outside the federal government. The university has several research projects with the urban Syracuse city schools to increase high-school graduation rates, among other improvements, that are paid for through federal, state, foundation, and business dollars.

"This is as cutting-edge research as you can get, and it's not going to show up in a narrow portfolio of federally sponsored research," Ms. Cantor said. "The federal government can't support all the innovation we need right now."

When it comes to federal research dollars, Syracuse has been on the decline. According to a Chronicle analysis of federal data, from 1999 to 2009, Syracuse had the fifth-largest percentage decrease in federally financed research expenditures of any college that was in the top 200 in federal money in 1999. Syracuse's federal dollars fell to $22.4-million during that period, a 42-percent drop after adjusting for inflation. Syracuse dropped 74 places—to 194th from 120th—on the list of universities reporting the most federally financed research expenditures.

Syracuse officials say that the data on federal science-and-engineering research at the university was misreported to the National Science Foundation and they have submitted new numbers.

Jeffrey Brainard contributed to this article.