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On Oct. 24, 2017 — a day after being named Iowa State University’s first female president — Wendy Wintersteen emailed the campus, thanking it for the opportunity to “build upon Iowa State’s rich legacy as a world-class land-grant university, a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities.”
Not quite five years later, ISU last week abdicated its AAU bragging rights by abruptly resigning from the esteemed invite-only collective of North America’s top research universities — leaving faculty, staff, students and lawmakers asking why.
“I think it’s an identity thing,” ISU political science professor David Peterson told The Gazette. “The AAU members have helped define what we are and what we strive to be. And so this makes me wonder if we're changing that identity and striving to be something else.”
Peterson, who has been at ISU since 2009, called the departure “the academic equivalent of leaving the Big 12” — a Power Five athletic conference — for the Mid-American Conference.
“Even if nothing else changes,” he said, “that sort of says who we think we are and who we think our peers are. And it says we no longer think our peers are the AAU schools.”
Officials with the university and Board of Regents have refused to answer The Gazette’s repeated questions about whether the now-65-member AAU was reviewing ISU’s membership, had put the campus on notice of expulsion or was planning to vote on whether ISU should stay a member.
An AAU spokesman said the organization doesn’t comment on membership actions.
Peterson said faculty are speculating ISU’s ouster was looming.
“I think that is the word that’s trickling out unofficially — that this was us leaving before we could be kicked out,” he said. “And I understand the decision. But I do kind of wish we’d tried. … Unless we were told explicitly … I wish we would have tried.”
Explaining the departure in an April 21 message, ISU said the decision was driven by a “commitment to its mission, strengths, and impact,” despite AAU membership indicators that have “begun to favor institutions with medical schools and associated medical research funding.”
“Iowa State remains notable in several important areas not prioritized by the AAU, such as affordability, student engagement, student retention, post-graduation employment, first-generation students and accessibility,” according to the ISU announcement.
ISU’s reproach of the AAU membership indicators echoes criticism leveled by the University of Nebraska a decade ago when it was ousted by the association following a monthslong review.
“The potential loss of AAU membership within this review process would have a far more negative impact on a member institution than failure to achieve membership in the first place,” Nebraska administrators argued in a 2011 portfolio spelling out reasons their campus should remain with the AAU. “Indeed we would be less than honest not to acknowledge that a negative outcome puts our current trajectory at risk. These are very high stakes for the university.”
As part of that portfolio, later made public through various media outlets, Nebraska argued the association’s methodology for ranking members — and non-members — is unfair and irrelevant.
“This analysis … raises issues regarding the credibility and appropriateness of the current AAU methodology generally,” according to the Nebraska assessment, which was careful to admit its campus wouldn’t shoot to the top of the AAU list if indicators were revised. “What we do claim is that a fair assessment of the membership indicators would not identify UNL as an outlier among AAU institutions.”
The AAU got its start in 1900 with 14 original members — including Ivy League schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia — and over time it invited dozens more comprehensive universities to join, like the University of Iowa in 1909 and ISU in 1958.
Its member universities help shape “policy for higher education, science, and innovation; promote best practices in undergraduate and graduate education; and strengthen the contributions of leading research universities to American society,” according to the AAU website.
A 2014 “Building a New AAU” policy brief from the New America Education Policy Program called the association “the most influential higher education organization in America.” That brief, however, argued for abandoning the old AAU model and creating a new version honoring “research and scholarship while rewarding institutions that advance the national interest of helping students from diverse backgrounds earn high-quality college degrees.”
“It’s just a private club with five dozen members, representing less than 2 percent of all the colleges and universities in America,” according to the brief. “Yet this tiny cabal of venerable institutions has done more to shape and, increasingly, harm the cause of higher learning in America than any other group one could name.”
Tapping the “old boys club” reference, the policy brief opined on the history of the AAU — likening its long-standing exclusivity to a “country club or secret society.” It said new members could be added only with the “assent of three-quarters of member institutions, a practice still in place today.”
Pointing to the process of expelling Nebraska, the brief reported presidents of AAU member institutions in April 2011 converged at Washington’s Four Seasons Hotel where they “enjoyed cocktails and private dinners” while engineering Nebraska’s ouster.
“In the eyes of the AAU, Nebraska’s sins were twofold,” according to the brief. “First, a lot of its federal research money was for agriculture, which the AAU discounted in the numerical rankings it used to judge research prowess.”
Nebraska’s ratio of research funding to professors also was below other more-selective campuses with fewer students.
“In other words, the University of Nebraska was ousted from the most prestigious club in higher education because it was doing what land-grant universities are supposed to: conduct research on practical matters, like feeding humanity, and educate substantial numbers of students, not all of whom were born into the ruling class.”
AAU officials wouldn’t give The Gazette details of its process for reviewing member campuses. But Nebraska’s example reveals an AAU “membership review committee” alerted that university in November 2010 that it was subject to a formal evaluation and — if it wanted to remain a member — could submit a portfolio describing how its mission and trajectory aligned with the AAU.
As part of that notice, the AAU shared with Nebraska how it ranks both member and non-member campuses based on indicators like federal expenditures, National Academy memberships, faculty honors and awards and citations.
The rankings, which hid how other AAU institutions placed, showed Nebraska at the bottom among all members and below dozens of non-member research campuses.
Harvey Perlman, Nebraska’s chancellor at the time, in submitting his campus’ report fighting for continued AAU status reiterated his “serious reservations about the utility or the appropriateness of the ranking methodology based on these indicators.”
Referencing ISU as an exception “rather than the rule” — in that it still had AAU status at the time — Nebraska in its critique of the ranking system noted land-grant campuses like ISU, Kansas State, and Nebraska are “particularly disadvantaged.”
“The indicators include (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and industry funding as a Phase II indicator, but that funding is excluded from the ranking algorithm,” according to the Nebraska report. “Whatever one’s view regarding USDA funding, land-grant institutions are obligated to conduct agricultural research and to devote faculty resources to cooperative extension.”
Making the same argument ISU offered this month, Nebraska a decade ago noted universities with medical colleges had an edge.
But AAU leaders rebuffed those critiques, noting member institutions chosen for review — of course — will question indicators that drag them down while promoting aspects that make them look good.
“We generally reject arguments that the indicators are poorly chosen or lack fidelity,” according to the AAU response. “While there is certainly room for argument in fine comparisons among institutions on one dimension or another, as reflected in any of these indicators, the main point to bear in mind here is that no review like this one is based on fine comparisons. It is triggered by the appearance of ‘significant and sustained disparity.’”
‘It would hurt’
ISU in the last budget year tallied $231.1 million in total external sponsored research funding, including $154.8 million in federal awards, according to its Office of the Vice President for Research. That federal total was down $31.2 million — or 17 percent — from its fiscal 2020 record of $186 million. Its biggest federal funding sources included the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation.
The UI, which has a medical college and hospital, last year reported nearly $702.4 million in research funding and a 24 percent increase in funding from federal agencies. Its biggest source of federal dollars was the National Institutes of Health, which increased UI funding by 7 percent to $200.3 million.
As a UI biomedical and mechanical engineering researcher who spends a lot of his time conducting research through contracts with the Department of Defense, Karim Abdel-Malek told The Gazette his campus’ membership in the AAU doesn’t affect this day-to-day work. But he does value its national advocacy.
“It's very important to have groups that speak our language, that can go to Washington, D.C., that articulate the need for more research funding, more investments into discovery and science,” he said. “So, from that point of view, is it important to be a member? I think so.”
Abdel-Malek said visitors to campus — particularly those from other countries — know about the AAU and have high regard for it.
“I use it quite a bit when we have visitors,” he said, noting guests from universities in Africa who toured his laboratories last week and knew of the UI’s AAU status. “They knew exactly what I was talking about. … They are very aware of whether we belong to a certain category or not.”
Leaving the AAU, he said, likely would have a negative impact on the UI. “I think it would hurt,” he said.
And that’s the worry state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, has for the institution in his district.
“Certainly it's a loss of prestige in academic circles,” he said. “And I think that it will hurt faculty recruiting. I think it will probably hurt recruiting of graduate students. And it will probably hurt the recruiting of international students.”
Such fallout, he said, will have ripple effects.
“The ability of the university to bring in outside research dollars is correlated with the quality of people you have here,” Quirmbach said. “People who are brighter and more productive are going to come up with more interesting research ideas and do a better job of getting funding for them.”
Quirmbach said Wintersteen phoned him the day before the announcement to give him a heads up ISU was leaving the AAU.
She didn’t alert faculty, according to professor Peterson, even though she had spoken glowingly of the campus’ happenings to the ISU Faculty Senate two days before the announcement.
Although the Faculty Senate has asked Wintersteen to return to speak this week at its final meeting of the academic year “to explain this decision to senators and provide them with the opportunity to ask questions,” she is not on the agenda.
Provost Jonathan Wickert is scheduled to give an “annual report on faculty advancement” and could face questions there.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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