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Sixty-four years after joining the prestigious Association of American Universities — an invitation-only member group of North America’s most elite comprehensive research universities — Iowa State University announced Thursday it’s leaving the group.
“The decision to end AAU membership is driven by Iowa State's commitment to its mission, strengths and impact,” according to the ISU Provost Office. “While the university's core values have not changed since joining the association in 1958, the indicators used by AAU to rank its members have begun to favor institutions with medical schools and associated medical research funding.”
Iowa’s Board of Regents, lawmakers and university executives — in appealing for state appropriations — have for years touted the state’s position of having two AAU research universities, considering its modest population, at ISU and the University of Iowa. In pleading for legislative funding, regents, UI and ISU have in the past warned of the threat of losing AAU status — which comes with international prestige, helpful in recruiting both faculty and students, and access to AAU grants and funding.
ISU in 2017 received an AAU grant to further undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In 2015, it participated in an AAU survey with 25 other members, focused on sexual assault, misconduct and harassment across the campuses.
Current annual AAU membership dues are $139,500. According to its most recent tax forms, the Washington, D.C.-based association survives almost entirely on dues, which accounted for $7.4 million of its $8.8 million revenue in 2018.
Founded in 1900, the AAU started with 12 members — including Ivy League schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. The association — which today has 66 members, including 36 public institutions, 28 private and two in Canada — brought in three public universities at its start, including two Big Ten campuses: the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin.
The UI joined in 1909, giving it a 113-year history with the group. Until now, ISU was among only three Big 12 Conference members in the group — along with the Universities of Kansas and Texas.
Every school in the Big Ten is in the AAU except the University of Nebraska — which became the first-ever AAU member to be expelled in 2011, just after Nebraska received an invitation to join the Big Ten.
Nebraska, like Iowa, had been with the AAU since 1909 but wasn’t keeping up with many other schools that were not AAU members in criteria like federal research dollars, faculty members belonging to the National Academies, faculty awards and citations.
Despite resistance to growing too large, the AAU has admitted several schools in the last several years, including the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2010, Boston University in 2012, Dartmouth College and the University of Utah in 2019 and Tufts University last year.
The same year Nebraska was ejected, Syracuse University announced plans to leave voluntarily — having come under the same “special review” scrutiny as did Nebraska, according to The Chronicle. Syracuse had been an AAU member since 1966 but found itself falling short of revised membership criteria, according to The Chronicle.
Favoring medical schools
ISU did not immediately say whether it had come under a special AAU review, and an AAU spokesman told The Gazette the organization doesn’t comment on membership actions.
ISU spokeswoman Angie Hunt told The Gazette, “There has been no site visit” from AAU officials or representatives.
Iowa State in announcing its departure noted AAU membership rankings favor medical schools with access to National Institutes of Health funding — like UI. Only five current AAU members — including ISU, Purdue University, University of California Santa Cruz, Princeton, and Brandeis University — don’t have medical colleges or schools.
In an ISU news release, officials reported the NIH this year alone will provide $40-plus billion in medical research funding, 2.5 times the $14.7 billion it provided in 1990.
Despite the trends, ISU said it ranks 16th in federal research expenditures among nearly 500 American universities that don’t have a medical school. In the 2021 budget year, ISU faculty and staff earned a record $559 million in external funding, a total that included federal COVID-19 aid. Of its $231 million in research funding that year, $154.8 million came from federal sources.
"Iowa State has always been and will continue to be a renowned research university," ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said in a statement, touting her faculty’s work in materials science, nanovaccines, genetics, cybersecurity and agricultural engineering.
AAU membership criteria today includes not just federal research funding, faculty awards and citations but also number of doctorates awarded annually, postdoctoral appointees, and state and industrial research funding — although to a lesser degree.
‘Not prioritized by the AAU’
In announcing its departure from the group, ISU emphasized its position 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 ISU, its first-year retention rate of 88 percent is more than 20 points above the national average of 65 percent; about 23 percent of ISU students are the first in their family to attend college; and about 95 percent of ISU graduates get a job or pursue an advanced degree within six months of graduation.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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