Who Needs the AAU, Anyway?

May 05, 2011

Every night on TV, David Letterman gives an entertaining Top 10 of the day. His lists are whimsical; there is no rationale to his selections. Every year, U.S. News & World Report ranks the top 100 universities, liberal-arts colleges, and professional schools. The magazine's lists are pretend science, far from reflecting the complexity of their agenda. In both cases, Letterman and U.S. News, there is randomness to their rankings, and so we laugh and take them with a pinch of salt.

The Association of American Universities, a self-selected club of 62 research universities (60 American and two Canadian), is supposed to be different, more quantitative and less subjective. Dare I say it: more academic and scholarly. The most common characteristics linking the AAU institutions are the size of their research budgets and the number of their faculty members who are members of prestigious national academies. "The advantage of this association ... is that we're all supposed to be alike," said one president of a member institution in a recent Chronicle article. "If that's no longer the case, then we lose the benefits of membership." Sounds a lot like a fraternity rush in the 1950s.

This small, elite collection of universities lobbies Congress in an effort to increase the flow of federal research money, much of which goes to AAU members. Who is to say, though, that a campus with fewer research dollars but a more targeted use of funds (creating, say, the pre-eminent place for research in a specific field of study) isn't "as good" as a university that has more total research dollars spread across 10 fields of study? Is an absolute dollar amount really the definitive data point? Who says so? More to the point, why should we care?

Many years ago, the roster of Rhodes and Marshall scholarship recipients came from a handful of legacy colleges. But was a student "better" because he had an Ivy League degree? As the selection process evolved, and the winners graduated from a wider list of colleges, no sacrifice to quality was evident. In fact, the Rhodes is sounder now than ever before. There turn out to be many able female scholars who add value to Oxford and gain from its offerings, and who heretofore would have been denied access because of their gender.

Similarly, the AAU might well be stronger if its membership grew to 75 or 100 rather than 62. And it would it be enhanced by having both heavyweight and welterweight categories.

Size, however, is only one important question. More relevant is the university's mission: What does it wish to accomplish? Who benefits from the AAU? Is it only the membership, or the academy as a whole? By securing more research dollars for themselves, are AAU institutions in a position to deny funds to others?

These questions—and many others—take on a new immediacy in the wake of the AAU's ouster last month of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, along with Syracuse University's decision, announced May 1, to withdraw from membership. The unprecedented vote to remove Nebraska, a member since 1909, was particularly unsettling.

Do the standards for research and uniformity of AAU members help American higher education by raising the bar for everyone? Or, by sequestering dollars for themselves, do AAU members limit the growth potential of other institutions? Does peer review excessively benefit those making the selection by favoring members of the club over aspiring outsiders?

Questions of equity abound. Some areas of research are costlier to undertake than others. Does that mean more-expensive fields are better or more important? If the study of agriculture at University A costs less to conduct than does research in nuclear medicine at University B, should the latter receive a higher ranking by the AAU than the former, if the quality and importance of the two research teams is the same? Such a ranking system would have serious implications for a research university that might aspire to AAU membership but whose mission relegates it to "second-class" status.

When developing a universitywide budget, some institutions segregate their medical complexes from the rest of the university. How, then, should the pool of dollars for research be counted? By including or excluding medicine? What's more, if the size of grants varies annually, then universities near the bottom of the list will always be in jeopardy of being overtaken by those just below, which may succeed in increasing their own scholarly support. Is the AAU prepared to reorder its ranks each year? Somehow I doubt it.

So, why do nonmember universities even want to join AAU? Most simply, because it exists. But does it actually matter? Few college presidents are willing to take Groucho Marx's position, "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member." I can't think of one campus that would turn down an offer to join. But the Catholic University of America and Clark University, which were once AAU members but no longer, seem not to have suffered as a result. One strains to see any change in the lives of these two institutions.

Americans like to believe we are democratic with a small "d"—that we give everyone a fair chance to play the game. But in the case of the AAU, that isn't true. It is a retro old-boy network that is ripe for change. Nebraska, Syracuse, Catholic, and Clark should start a new, improved club.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is chairman of the higher-education practice at Korn/Ferry International and a president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University.