As AAU Admits Georgia Tech to Its Exclusive Club, Other Universities Await the Call

April 21, 2010

As president of the Georgia Institute of Technology from 1994 to 2008, G. Wayne Clough was often asked why he didn't attend meetings of the Association of American Universities.

Georgia Tech was not a member, but "people were always saying, 'We thought you were in,'" says Mr. Clough, who is now secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

It was a reasonable assumption. The AAU represents universities with the most prestigious profiles in research and graduate education. Georgia Tech has long been strong on both counts. The university's share of federal research dollars topped the shares of almost all non-AAU, comprehensive universities, as well as those of quite a few members.

On Tuesday the invitation-only association made it official, naming Georgia Tech to the exclusive group that now numbers 63 universities. (See an interactive timeline and map of admitted members.) Nobody could rationally complain about the announcement, but several other university leaders may be scratching their heads and wondering why their campuses haven't made the grade.

Georgia Tech was the only institution recommended for membership at this week's AAU meeting, according to two AAU university presidents. And although Robert M. Berdahl, the association's president, says there are "several" other universities getting a serious look, there are no meetings scheduled to consider new additions.

The AAU's membership criteria focus primarily on the amount of competitive research funds, and the share of faculty members who belong to the National Academies.

Despite the stated importance of research as a criterion, some universities left out of the AAU outpace member institutions. According to a Chronicle analysis, at least 11 institutions received more federal money in 2008 than did 13 members, and six received more than 19. (See related chart.) Among members, Brandeis University, Rice University, and the University of Oregon drew the least amount of federal dollars.

Institutions have left the AAU in the past—the Catholic University of America in 2002 and Clark University before that. Both universities were original members, joining in 1900, and said their changed missions no longer made membership a good fit.

Research heavyweights that can make good arguments for joining the AAU include, but are hardly limited to, Boston University, Dartmouth College, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, North Carolina State University, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Georgia, and the University of Miami. Officials at several of those institutions acknowledge that they would like to join the club.

"The AAU is the pre-eminent research-intensive membership group," says William R. (Randy) Woodson, North Carolina State's chancellor. "To be a part of that organization is something N.C. State aspires to."

Perks of Membership

Athletics conferences double as academic peer groups, and give a glimpse into the pecking order among research universities. Among the Bowl Championship Series conferences, Southern institutions seem particularly underrepresented in the AAU. All of the Big Ten universities are members, while only the University of Florida and Vanderbilt University get the nod from the Southeastern Conference.

But even some institutions from the old guard would like a seat at the table. Dartmouth College, which has long emphasized undergraduate education, is the only Ivy League institution not in the AAU. Jim Yong Kim, Dartmouth's president, would like that to change, citing the college's research clout and strength in areas like health-care delivery.

"Dartmouth certainly would welcome an invitation to join the AAU," Dr. Kim wrote in response to an inquiry. "Our level and complexity of research activity and our commitment to research seem to us reflective of a leading institution."

The AAU imprimatur comes with several valuable perks. A wide range of officials from member institutions meet annually, including separate meetings for presidents, provosts, research chiefs, and government-relations officers. Those gatherings are closed to the news media and nonmembers, and are a rare chance for candid conversation. And they often include access for the small group to big names in government, the business world, and the news media. The New York Times columnist and author David Brooks, for instance, spoke to a gathering of AAU presidents this week in Washington.

But for many universities, particularly up-and-comers, the big draw is prestige. Trustees, lawmakers, and donors want to see signs of progress, and being on the shortlist with Yale and Berkeley looks good in a rankings-obsessed industry.

"Everyone wants to invest in the very best," says Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, which is not an AAU member. "And success breeds success."

Mr. Woodson just arrived at North Carolina State, after having previously served as provost at Purdue University, an AAU member. He says state legislators would like to see North Carolina State join the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a member since 1922.

Despite being on the job for only two weeks, Mr. Woodson says people have told him they'd like the university to make it to the AAU's ranks "many, many times."

An Effective Advocate?

Not everybody buys the value of AAU membership. Daniel S. Greenberg is a journalist in Washington who covers science policy. He is skeptical of the association's influence and says the reason universities pay it so much attention is because of the stingy and slow admissions process.

"It runs like a restaurant that limits their reservations," Mr. Greenberg says. "People clamor to get in because they're told it's hard to get in."

James D. Savage does not agree. A professor of politics at the University of Virginia, Mr. Savage acknowledges that there is a "self-affirming" side to universities' desire to join the association. But he says the AAU is an effective advocate for higher education in Washington.

The association has "helped demonstrate the value of federal dollars that went to research universities," says Mr. Savage.

Joining the AAU comes with an actual cost. The association survives almost entirely on membership dues, which accounted for $4.6-million of its $5-million in total revenue in 2008, according to its most recent federal tax filing. Annual dues are $80,500.

But that's a price most aspiring members would gladly pay.

"If somebody called and said, 'We'd like you to be a part of the AAU,' I'd take that call," says Anthony A. Frank, Colorado State University's president.

Colorado State is one of several promising AAU candidates. The university received $209-million in federal research funds in 2008. Yet Mr. Frank says Colorado State isn't making the pursuit of AAU membership or higher perches in common university rankings a top priority.

"We're worrying about doing our job better and dealing with rankings and memberships as they come," says Mr. Frank.

Jeffrey Brainard and Paul Basken contributed to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that James D. Savage, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, has criticized the Association of American Universities as pushing academic earmarks. He has not made such criticism, and the association has not pushed for earmarks.