Iowa State ends membership with prestigious Association of American Universities

Curtiss Hall (left) and the Campanile (right) on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. The Board of Regents are on the ISU campus today to review four new programs. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

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 on Thursday announced 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 an ISU Provost Office communication Thursday. “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 and higher education support — have for years touted Iowa’s unique position boasting two AAU research universities, considering its modest population.

In pleading for legislative funding, regents, UI, and Iowa State 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.

Details about membership fees weren’t immediately made available, but the Washington, DC-based association survives almost entirely on those dues, which accounted for $7.4 million of its $8.8 million revenue in 2018, according to the most recent public tax documents.

The association that year spent most of its budget on staff compensation — with $110,000 going out in grants to member universities that hosted AAU staff site visits “to discuss the activities conducted.”

Annual dues were $80,500 per institution in 2010, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Other benefits of membership include access to “big names in government, the business world, and the news media,” according to The Chronicle.

Among funding and opportunities, Iowa State in 2017 received an AAU grant to further undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In 2015, Iowa State participated in an AAU Campus Climate Survey with 25 other members—focused on sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment across the campuses.

Nebraska ejected

Founded in 1900, the association 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 University of Iowa joined in 1909, giving it a 113-year history with the group. Iowa State joined in 1958, and until its withdrawal was among only three Big 12 Conference members presently 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 non-AAU schools in membership 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 recently — 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 Nebraska, according to The Chronicle, which reported both schools ranked at the bottom of the AAU metrics.

Syracuse had been an AAU member since 1966 but found itself falling short of revised membership criteria, according to The Chronicle.

Favoring medical schools

Iowa State on Thursday did not immediately indicate whether it had come under a special AAU review, although ISU officials did note AAU membership rankings favor medical schools with access to National Institutes of Health funding — like UI.

Only four current AAU members — including Iowa State, Purdue University, University of California Santa Cruz, 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.

“The dramatic rate of increase in NIH funding over the last 30 years has far outpaced that of the USDA or National Science Foundation,” from which ISU pulls much of its federal funding.

Despite those trends, Iowa State 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 aid. Of it’s $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.

“Ultimately, our efforts are measured by the success of our students, the innovation of our faculty, and our service to Iowa and the world,” Wintersteen said. “These metrics are not exclusive to any one institution or group of institutions.”

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.

A membership committee periodically reviews both non-member institutions for potential invites and member universities for continued membership, “with the goal of ensuring that the association in fact comprises comparable leading research-intensive universities.”

“Non-member universities whose research and education profile exceeds that of a number of current members may be invited to join the association,” according to the AAU membership policy. “Current members whose research and education profile falls significantly below that of other current members or below the criteria for admission of new members will be subject to further review and possible discontinuation of membership.”

The AAU doesn’t have a membership cap but “values ​​remaining a relatively small organization whose composition enables productive meetings and collegial relationships among the member presidents and chancellors.”

The association’s current 11-member board is chaired by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and includes Douglas Girod, chancellor of the University of Kansas, one of Iowa State’s Big 12 Conference peers.

‘Not prioritized by the AAU’

In announcing its departure from the group, the Iowa State emphasized its notoriety 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 Iowa State:

  • ISU ranks in the Top 50 nationally for student engagement, per Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings;
  • ISU’s first-year retention rate of 88 percent is more than 20 points above the national average of 65 percent;
  • The Princeton Review ranks Iowa State’s undergraduate entrepreneurship programs 11th;
  • About 23 percent of ISU students are the first in their family to attend college;
  • Nearly one in five ISU students are Pell-eligible, indicating exceptional financial need;
  • About 95 percent of ISU graduates get a job or pursue an advanced degree within six months of graduation;
  • ISU’s tuition long has been among the lowest of its AAU peers.

Although Iowa State is abdicating its seat at the AAU table, the university remains among more than 140 doctoral universities ranked for “very high research activity,” according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.

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