LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska-Lincoln took a hard blow to its academic reputation when it was kicked out of an organization of the nation’s top research universities this week.
It was the first time ever that the now 62-member Association of American Universities had voted to remove a member.
Though the change appears to have no immediate impact on students or faculty, it’s hard to predict how much it will shape UNL’s future.
The University of Nebraska was one of the first 20 universities admitted to the organization in 1909. Ten years ago, UNL successfully fended off a previous attempt to force it out.
UNL’s membership in the prestigious organization was touted as a factor in the university obtaining its coveted invitation to join the Big Ten Conference last year. All of the existing Big Ten universities, which include many of the best research institutions in the country, are AAU members.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman, in a Friday memorandum, called the decision “disconcerting” but reassured faculty that losing AAU membership won’t slow down efforts to expand UNL’s research, improve its teaching or enhance its national stature.
“I do not see this development in any way impacting our momentum or diminishing our accomplishments,” he said.
He also said the criteria used to oust UNL could well result in other universities losing their AAU membership.
Many other highly ranked research universities would like to join the AAU, but the organization’s leadership has decided that it should not grow. Only three new members have been admitted in the past decade — Texas A&M, Stony Brook University and Georgia Tech.
AAU membership does not directly influence an institution’s ability to attract research dollars or top faculty or staff, said Jeffrey Selingo, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“I’m not sure many faculty members or grant-making agencies pay that much attention to who’s in the AAU and who’s not,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that if the researchers are still doing good work, the institution will attract the grants and attract the faculty members.”
It’s unclear, however, whether being turned out of the AAU might be more harmful than never having belonged in the first place, he admitted.
“We’re in unprecedented waters here; it hasn’t happened before,” Selingo said.
And, despite his subsequent assurances to faculty, Perlman’s pleas to AAU officials made it clear that a lot is at stake.
“As I know you must realize, being dropped from membership would have a far greater impact on an institution than not being invited to membership in the first place,” he wrote to the membership review committee. “We believe that this possibility places at risk much of the progress the university has experienced during the last decade.”
The AAU is composed of some heavy hitters such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and Columbia. Kansas, Colorado, Iowa State, Iowa and Missouri also are members.
Perlman said Friday that the Big Ten invite is the only UNL accomplishment in the past 10 years that was influenced by AAU membership.
Barbara McFadden Allen, director of the Big Ten’s academic arm, offered assurances that UNL still is welcome in the Big Ten even without AAU membership. Allen heads the Committee on Institutional Collaboration, or CIC, which fosters joint academic endeavors among the Big Ten universities.
“Nebraska is the same fine university today as it was last year when it was invited to join the Big Ten and the CIC,” she said.
It was not an easy decision to terminate UNL’s membership, said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the AAU.
“The University of Nebraska is a fine institution and has been a valued member of AAU since 1909,” he said. “This process has been difficult and, frankly, painful, for the association and its members. The association followed its policy and process in conducting this review and in carrying out this decision.”
A two-thirds majority vote of the group’s members was required to end UNL’s membership.
UNL has long lagged on key indicators for membership in the AAU. It ranked dead last among the AAU’s primary indicators measuring the strength and breadth of an institution’s research — federal research expenditures, faculty credentials, awards and citations.
Perlman said that is because the indicators don’t give adequate credit to UNL’s strengths as a land grant university and center for agricultural research.
Indeed, by many measures, UNL has seen significant improvement in the past decade — federal research dollars grew from $37.8 million in 1999-2000 to $83.7 million in 2008-2009. The number of freshmen with ACT scores of 31 or higher has grown from 260 in 2002 to 489 in 2010.
The AAU acknowledged that UNL’s federal research funding has grown 2.1 percent faster than that of the rest of the AAU membership during the past decade.
However, the AAU’s membership review committee — headed by Larry R. Faulkner, president emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin — found that even if UNL research continued to grow at the same rate for another decade, it would still remain at the bottom of the AAU.
UNL survived an attempt to push it out of the AAU in the late 1990s.
It was notified last November, however, that it had been selected for an in-depth review by the AAU’s membership committee.
AAU membership policies — which were revised as recently as last week — call for periodic reviews of current members and for in-depth reviews in those instances where there appears to be a “significant and sustained disparity between the mission or accomplishments of a member institution and that of other members of the association.”
UNL prepared a 45-page, four-color brochure touting the array of its research endeavors — such as its polar ice research, its nanotechnology efforts, the Hadron Collider Project and its new Water for Food Institute.
Perlman argued that the AAU criteria are stacked against UNL. He said they devalue USDA-funded research, and they compare UNL with other insitutions that have on-campus medical facilities.
According to an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education, UNL would rank above at least 11 AAU institutions if research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center were included in its statistics.
However, the organizational structure adopted by the NU system in 1968 prevents that comparison from being made.